Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint
Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint

TV news: The credibility issue

Of late, news broadcasters have faced flak for their coverage which is often dubbed as misleading, hyped-up and downright insensitive

You don’t realize how little accuracy there is in network TV reporting until they cover a story in your hometown." This is one of American freelance writer Robert Brault’s many quotable quotes. Brault, who has written the book Round Up The Usual Subjects, runs a blog and writes for magazines and newspapers.

The quote may seem apt for private television news media in India in the wake of mounting criticism of the quality of news coverage and the credibility crisis they are facing today. Of late, news broadcasters have faced flak for their coverage which is often dubbed as misleading, hyped-up and downright insensitive, especially when it comes to reporting disasters and other tragic incidents. Debates on private news channels have been censured for being raucous and shrill.

Little surprise then, that the coverage of last month’s devastating earthquake was criticized by viewers both in Nepal and India. The criticism for reporting on the micro-blogging site Twitter was severe and was condemned for being thoughtless.

To be sure, this is not the first time that private news channels have been faulted for their content. Their reporting on political news, crime and other calamities has faced flak in the past. Award-winning American newscaster David Brinkley had once said: “The one function that TV news performs very well is that when there is no news we give it to you with the same emphasis as if there were."

Chintamani Rao, former chief executive officer of India TV, the Hindi news channel, believes that in their effort to drum up audiences, news channels often compromise their journalistic integrity. Nothing is more important to editors than being first with the big story. “TV newsrooms are watching the competition 24x7, and there’s hell to pay for all concerned when a big story breaks on another channel. Then the race begins to make the story your own, and if that means making a few compromises, so be it," he says.

For a change, and which is a good thing, news broadcasters are recognizing that there is a credibility issue facing news on television. In a recent speech, Prannoy Roy, executive co-chairman of NDTV group, said the biggest danger that TV news faced today was “tabloidization", which is the death of good journalism. He was speaking at the Mumbai Press Club, where he received the lifetime achievement award for excellence in journalism.

“ …we are getting slack—forget research, we don’t even need to check our facts, we don’t care if we wrongly defame anyone—the bottom line is we are dropping our standards. If this decline in quality continues, three years from now, Indian media will have no credibility left," he warned.

To be sure, trust deficit in news television is already a concern. Rajdeep Sardesai, television news anchor and consulting editor with India Today Group, admits to a “quality deficit in recent times…" The editor of a Hindi news channel agrees with Sardesai’s prognosis but declines to elaborate.

Is too much competition, poor leadership, external pressure or the business model to blame for the state of private news TV in India? There is competition for sure. In all, there are 400 news channels, including those in Hindi and English. If news were so great, wouldn’t more people be watching it? All told, these news channels generate a genre share of barely 7%. The number for Hindi news is even smaller at 3.6%, according to some estimates, even as Hindi general entertainment enjoyed a 31.2% share of total television viewership in 2014. The genre share for English news is worth noting for its insignificance: under 1%.

Yes, there will be pressures, both internal and external, but to what extent you submit to them is eventually up to you—to the individual, whether it’s the owner or the editor. Last week, Arun Jaitley, minister of information and broadcasting, also mentioned the twisted business model in news television. While delivering the keynote address at the inaugural session of a seminar on ‘Establishment of a Communication University’, organized by the Indian Institute of Mass Communication, Jaitley is reported to have said: “The aberration in the electronic media is that the cost of distribution is more than the cost of content." Sardesai agrees: “Our failure to invest (or have the means to invest) in high-quality news and programming is catching up with us."

Some blame the advertising pie which is distributed on the basis of the number of eyeballs a channel gets. In his speech, NDTV’s Roy said the day advertisers in India distinguish between tabloid and serious news like it’s done all over the world, India will see the growth of better-quality media and an end to the mushrooming of eyeball-chasing tabloid TV.

True, the tyranny of TRPs is partly responsible for the state of affairs in news television, “but we also have lost our moral compass", Sardesai argues.

Shuchi Bansal is Mint’s media, marketing, and advertising editor. Ordinary Post will look at pressing issues related to all three. Or just fun stuff. Respond to this column at shuchi.b@livemint.com

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