TV blabbering is not journalism: Lessons from the live coverage

December 4th, 2008 - 11:46 am ICT by IANS  

News channel bosses must be patting themselves on the back on their marathon terror coverage. For three days they had treated the viewers to live coverage of the multiple terror strikes in Mumbai. In doing so, they probably set a record in television history.As the terrorists delivered the heaviest blow yet on the country, the 24×7 news channels rose to the occasion. They took the nation’s attention off everything else so that it could concentrate fully on the mayhem in Mumbai. What more could the terrorists have asked for?

With the terrorists operating simultaneously on several fronts, there was plenty to do and the channels rushed their best talents and possibly additional equipment to Mumbai to augment the resources available locally. Cameras were deployed on all war fronts and they instantly brought into drawing rooms (or wherever else the TV sets were) the sights and sounds that they picked up. The reporters kept up an incessant flow of words, either on their own or in response to questions posed by anchors sitting in the studios. Their labour earned handsome rewards in terms of TRP ratings, and that certainly is reason enough to celebrate.

TRP is not a measure of professional performance. It is, therefore, to be hoped that when the euphoric mood wears out, the media bosses will make an effort to objectively assess their performance in strictly professional terms.

At an early stage in the live coverage, the cameras picked up the image of a gun-wielding young man, warily watching the surroundings. The reporter and the anchor helpfully informed the viewers that they did not know whether he was a terrorist or a commando!

On the second day, while all eyes were on the Taj, the Oberoi and Nariman House, the channels ‘broke’ news of fresh gunfire at Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, where terrorists had mowed down scores of passengers the previous day. One anchor, with his superior knowledge of the topography of Bori Bunder, explained to viewers that it was an area with many buildings and that he was not able to state whether the shooting took place in the rail terminus or some other building near by.

Actually, at that point, his channel was scrolling a headline which said the shooting was on Platform No.8 of CST.

At that very point, on another channel, a reporter was informing viewers that the shooting was on Platforms No. 14 and No. 15, from where long distance trains leave.

Later in the day the Indian Railways denied there had been any firing at the station on that day.

In the coverage of a running story, unfolding itself simultaneously at different locations, inaccurate information creeping in is not entirely unusual. However, in this instance, there is reason to suspect that reporters, eager to break news, had gone on air without waiting for confirmation from either the police or the railways, the two sources that could be relied upon for information about a shooting incident in a railway station.

On the third day, as the Taj nightmare was drawing to a close, the anchor and reporter of a channel were engaged in a heroic effort to make sense out of sounds emerging from the hotel. According to the National Security Guard, a lone terrorist was still holding out inside the hotel at the time. The reporter, crouching on the ground, drew the viewers’ attention to gunfire. The anchor asked from which floor it was coming. “First floor,” said the reporter. More explosions followed. When the seventh explosion was reported, the anchor asked where it was coming from, the same floor or somewhere else. The reporter said this one appeared to be from the ground floor. The two then speculated on the possibility of the lone terrorist moving from one floor to another as though his precise location was a crucial matter.

Like the national channels, CNN and BBC also provided extended live coverage of the terror strike. Since they did not have their own cameras at the scenes of action, they turned to the Indian channels for visuals. While the CNN drew visuals from its local partner CNN-IBN, BBC picked feeds from the Hindi channels. However, the words the viewers heard were their own. There was no meaningless chatter by the anchors and correspondents. There was no speculation either. Instead, there were reports which bore the imprint of professional journalists.

Live television has opened up new possibilities. The marathon Mumbai terror coverage has shown that Indian news channels have yet to learn how to make effective use of the facility that technology has put at their disposal. They must realize that the media’s job is to gather and disseminate information. Seeing is not knowing, much less understanding. The sights and sounds the switched-on camera picks up have to be made intelligible to the viewers. Blabbering by anchors and reporters, howsoever entertaining, is not an adequate substitute for professional reporting.

(B.R.P. Bhaskar is a veteran journalist. He can be contacted at brpbhaskar@gmail.com)

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