News channel editors are like horses. They go to work with blinkers on! That need not necessarily be a very bad thing. Horses are forced to wear blinkers so they see only the road ahead and stay on course. We all call that focus, staying on the job, and any manager worth his salt will tell you that that is a great asset.
Unlike horses, news channel editors wear the blinkers voluntarily. They seek but a few “big” stories on a normal day and are ecstatic when a mammoth story such as that of a missing chief minister lands in their lap early in the morning, as did YSR’s. This story had all the trappings of a great TV event and more: it had power, politics, fear, uncertainties, search and rescue, bad weather, Air Force, Greyhounds, choppers, Sukhois, shades of terror (Naxals), high drama, emotion and mystery. What’s more, it was open-ended.
News channels love nothing more than an open-ended mystery. It lends itself to many “theories” such as did the copter crash or land or crash-land? Then the anchors get to throw a lot of jargon, some of which they themselves have heard for the first time such as ELT, physical assets on the ground, rappelling, slithering, winching, etc. And then a story without an ending means endless programming, which is like a gift from the Gods themselves. It takes care of every channel’s legitimate worry of how to occupy the viewer the next minute for the next 30 hours.
To the extent that focus is important, this obsession with one story is great. But a few hours into the story, the channels are so deeply entangled in it that they do not know how to get out of the story’s clutches. They don’t “have” a story, the story “has” them. I call this the Abhimanyu Syndrome. The nature of the medium demands that channels plunge headlong into breaking news and try to get a grip on it as they go along. But what often happens is that the story gets a stranglehold on the channels, instead of the other way round, and the channels don’t know when and how to extricate themselves, just like Mahabharata’s Abhimanyu. He knew how to get into the “chakravyuh” (a certain enemy formation), but not how to come out of it.
As a result, channels have a penchant for overstaying. Each channel stays on the story not because it has new information, but because the other channels are staying on it. They all keep parroting the same stuff over and over again and every once in a while when they sense falling energy levels and fear viewer fatigue, they try to inject fresh life into the proceedings. They do this by starting to run faster than the story, which manifests itself in many ways such as the anchors suddenly raising the pitch and volume (like somebody suddenly stuck a pin in the bottom); talking faster and faster to suggest urgency; and bending facts, introducing half-truths and telling open lies such as talking to dead chief ministers on mobile and blaming the tribals of Nallamala for the cruel joke on the viewers.
Look at what happened with the YSR story. In 30 hours of TV time, the story moved forward just a few times: the news break, the launch of the search operations, the centre joining in, Sukhois joining in, ISRO being called upon, US help being sought, a few press conferences (which said much the same), the chopper remains being spotted, the death being announced. That’s hardly content for 30 hours. But the channels were prisoners of their own self-generated excitement. The world wouldn’t have ended if the channels ventured on to other stories while keeping a close watch on developments in the YSR story and returning to it when required.
But everybody was fixated. According to figures from the Centre for Media Studies’ Media Lab, NDTV 24x7 spent 431 minutes out of 480 minutes, a whopping 90 per cent of its entire prime time (7-11 pm), on September 2 and 3 on the story. Times Now spent nearly 77 per cent and CNN-IBN 70 per cent. (See table below for details.)
As you can see, purely in terms of the airtime they gave to the story, the Hindi channels kept their composure more than the English ones with Star News, which spent the most time on the story, giving it just 37.5 per cent of its prime time (among the private channels).
That is great, but what did they do with the rest of their time? Did they give the other “big” news of the day, the Delhi High Court’s judgement that the Chief Justice of India’s office is covered under the RTI Act, any play? Considering all the recent controversies about the higher judiciary’s assets and the people’s right to know, this was the mother of all legal stories. In terms of its long-term impact for the country, this story had far greater significance than even YSR’s disappearance which was, of course, more dramatic. So, how did the “national” news channels handle this story? (See the table below.)
Prime Time (7-11 pm) Coverage of Delhi HC Ruling on CJI Office, Sept 2 & 3. Source CMS Media Lab
Yes, that’s right. They just ignored it. The CJI-RTI story just did not exist for them. It was fully and completely blanked out by the national news channels. We must be grateful for NDTV 24x7’s two gracious minutes, but when you take into account that the channel has instituted the first RTI awards and is promoting the same as its commitment to the national cause, it’s a pittance, a joke on the RTI movement.
That brings us back to editors, horses and blinkers. Blinkers are meant to keep the horse on course, not to blind it. In their preoccupation with “the” big story, editors become blind to the other stories of the day. They give up the very job of the editor, which is to decide the order and merit of stories and allot time accordingly. If news selection is all about running one story endlessly at the expense and exclusion of all other stories, do we really need editors?
Think about it.
(The views expressed here are of the writer’s and not those of the editors and publisher of exchange4media.com.)