While the TV news in India frequently fails in providing relevant information to the citizens and rather becomes an arena for incessant shouting, it also operates in subtler ways. The mere language of headlines, hashtags and names of shows should raise eyebrows.
American linguist and philosopher, Noam Chomsky, theorised the ‘propaganda model’ of the mass media in his book Manufacturing Consent, wherein he talked about five filters of the media: ownership, advertising, sources, flak, and creation of a common enemy. In a nutshell, media institutions are part of big conglomerates who sell their products to advertisers, and whose sources of information are also the elites; those who oppose these elite interests face flak from the system, while a common ideological enemy is created to spread propaganda.
Yet, it doesn’t take a renowned philosopher to observe elements of this model operating on a daily basis; most Indian news shows seem to be following it to near perfection in some or the other way.
Those dramatic headlines coupled with theatrical music and imagery need to only be slightly observed to understand the suggestive undertones of the programmes. Not only biases, but provocation can also be seen. Sentimental and emotive elements are consciously used to shape narratives and capture viewers. News edges closer to the genre of entertainment. Apart from the more conspicuous displays of these elements as seen in the debates and the role of star-anchors, much subtler mechanisms also seem to be at play – headlines, hashtags, and even the names of the shows are culpable.
The most visible examples of this can be seen during critical situations. Since Thursday, following the Pulwama attack, news channels focused almost exclusively on the incident – and rightly so. Yet, the gravity of the situation was used by the channels to draw in audiences with their theatrics. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with drawing audiences, because that’s what news channels literally run on, but the problem arises when the techniques used for this purpose pose harms.
For instance, consider the headlines during the 9 P.M. Broadcast of Aaj Tak on Thursday – “Ye hamla nahi, jang ka ailaan hai” (It’s not an attack, it’s a proclamation of war), “Surgical strike nahi, seedha prahaar hi raasta?” (Not surgical strike, but a direct attack is the solution?). During situations like these, when emotions of the public run high and a sense of frustration surrounds the masses, the responsibility of providing a calm and measured coverage of the news lies with the media to an even greater extent, especially on widely-watched channels like Aaj Tak. Of course, a sense of anger was present in the public. But by using provocative headlines – those that hint towards a call for war – these news shows not only fuel the fire but also send out a wrong message. Similar headlines were seen in Friday’s ‘DNA’ show on Zee News.
Be it ex-servicemen, defence experts, or even many common people, there exists a recognition that war isn’t a joke. Yet it makes for good TV, doesn’t it? The severity of a war, the appeal for revenge, the impending danger – all of it draws the audience. Instead of responsibly analysing the situation and, in fact, making an appeal to the viewers to maintain calm and let the concerned authorities take the necessary steps, such programming tries to capitalise on the emotion to attract audiences by stoking the fire. Drawing in viewers also means pulling in more advertisers. That’s just one example of how the filters operate. Yet, these instances aren’t limited to the coverage of emergency situations.
In fact, the mere usage of hashtags in everyday programming points to a bigger picture. Hashtags trend on Twitter, giving news channels an idea of what type of news pieces would sell. Further, this would allow them to focus more strongly on populist topics, which can potentially sideline some crucial but less market-friendly issues. The style and substance of the news shows is also reflected in the popularity of these hashtags; if a particular style of news attracts more tweets, channels will have greater incentive to keep going with that style.
Furthermore, the language of hashtags is also important. A simple YouTube search entry of “Republic TV debate” presents a multitude of clips of Arnab Goswami’s primetime debate show. Every video thumbnail has a hashtag in it. ‘#RahulFakeNews’, ‘#RepublicBharatVsAMU’, ‘#CongAttacksHindus’, ‘#RahulLieCaught’, ‘#UnstableAlliance’, ‘#ModiVsWho’ – these are just some of the many hashtags that invite questions. The hashtags aren’t only reflective of a singular narrative but also give an idea on the type of tweets they’ll invite. Obviously, it won’t be in the show’s interest to display tweets that go against the narrative it wants to portray. Thus, very selective tweets are displayed, giving an impression to the viewers that what they’re watching is correct and supported by the public opinion as well.
Sensational issues are picked by many channels. CNN-News18’s weekly 10 P.M. show- ‘The Right Stand’ regularly focuses almost exclusively on issues having a religious angle.
Even the names of these shows should be inspected. Halla Bol, Takkar, and Dangal are also, in fact, names of action movies, almost as if the shows are meant to be a platform for speakers to brawl over issues; ‘Bhai vs Bhai’ and ‘The Great Debate Show’ seem to have an entertainment element inherently attached to them; ‘Arnab Goswami on the Debate @ 9’ puts more emphasis on the anchor than the news.
Obviously, it’s not possible to deconstruct and analyse every debate in a single piece and even these examples are selective. There are innumerable debates that may be deconstructed and analysed, but the aforementioned selective examples are reflective of a larger trend. A look at the substance of these debates glaringly points towards the problems in the media. But the point is- even inconspicuous elements like hashtags and headlines are at play. So, what does the language of news shows tell us? Bias, sensationalism, and irresponsibility, for a start.
Yet, it doesn’t mean that all’s bad. Even these shows sometimes pick real issues and do a good job covering and analysing them. Like the Editor-in-Chief of The Indian Express, Raj Kamal Jha said, “Good journalism is, in fact, growing; it’s just that bad journalism makes a lot more noise.”
Feature Image Credits: Newslaundry