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News as infotainment: Good or Bad?

December 15, 2008

I watched the television coverage of the gruesome terrorism-attacks in Mumbai. It left questions in my mind that I felt the need to explore. Some of those questions were related to the way NDTV covered the terrorism in Mumbai on 26 November 2008.

The things I found disturbing: the blood-red coloured NDTV graphics with ‘Warzone Mumbai’ written on them that were constantly being aired; the racy and evocative percussion-instrument music that accompanied these graphics; the calling of this as India’s 9/11; the repeated usage of the slogan — ‘Enough is enough’; and, Barkha Dutt’s histrionic style of reportage and style of anchoring in the ‘We The People’ episode after the terrorism-attacks.

I take the case of NDTV in particular for two reasons: I prefer listening to the news in English, and secondly, NDTV, relative to other Indian News-channels, is arguably the best — in terms of their quality of journalism and their least sensational approach to news in general. Unfortunately, I still find NDTV alarmingly sensational. This observation becomes clearer when I compare it with the BBC World news channel: NDTV then appears significantly more sensationalist than the former. BBC too, though, has made attempts to spice up proceedings with respect to their visuals, musical scores and style of presenting news; so one couldn’t consider them virginal either in this regard. Nonetheless, they are more understated, and their ‘spices’ appeal to a more sophisticated sense of aesthetics; vitally, their generally high standard of journalism across fields, programs and media makes it hard to build a case for complaint.

Private news channels in general, are businesses. Like other businesses, they depend on their clients to stay in business. In this case we, the viewers, comprise the clientele of these news channels. The greater the number of people that watch a channel and the longer they stay on it, the better it is for the channel. The product must be made attractive to the client, or it is likely that the client will be lost to competitors. So the trick here is to package the news attractively and the one way to make such a product attractive to the masses is to make it entertaining: this has come to be known as infotainment. And one thing that’s certain is that Infotainment is here to stay, because it achieves its goal of creating an attractive product.

The issue of infotainment is a multi-dimensional and problematic one. My objective here is to look at this issue from all perspectives.

My focus here is not on analyzing the pros and cons of infotainment per se, but to decide whether or not news — that deals with carnage, violence, human tragedy and suffering — ought to be packaged as infotainment.
If NDTV (or any other media company for that matter) wants to stand for excellence in journalism, and at the same time wants to be a positive and just force that works for socio-economic-political discourse and change, what is needed of them is a relentless pursuit of the truth — and its unravelling when required — be it in the field, or what comes out from mouths of politicians. What is needed of them is incisive and penetrating analyses of the issues at hand. Tawdry visuals used in tandem with evocative (and incidentally not tasteful in the context of their usage) musical scores, often reminiscent of a family drama/ tear-jerker Bollywood film or Ekta Kapoor soap opera on TV, may — setting aside the commercial benefits for the company — at best generate public interest and/or mobilise public support for issues and causes. But the worrying bit is that such stirring styles of presentation may prove to be detrimental to the people of a country or perhaps even to those of more than one country, if not accompanied by truthful, careful, unbiased and comprehensive analyses of issues, policies and decisions, and their possible and likely repercussions. Hence, what is vital is that we get to see all sides of the story — sans any misrepresentations.

Media companies have great power: they can influence people, and thus directly or indirectly also influence their governments (or lack thereof). This translates into a lot of power. But great power must also be accompanied with great responsibility (a quote which I borrow and slightly paraphrase from a Hollywood film). Thus it is vital that they conform to the highest standards of ethics at all times. This also entails that media personalities should refrain from using their channels as a platform to disseminate their own views or opinions, in however subtle, sophisticated or subliminal a way — no matter how noble their intentions may be.

I think Barkha Dutt — though genuine and well-meaning in her intentions — often uses a histrionic style of reportage. Histrionics in reportage has the ability to evoke dangerous knee-jerk responses; this danger is significant when the audience comprises a large number of people that do not have a high level of discernment — this is often the case when something is broadcasted to a vast number of the general public.

I do not mean to imply that she should not share her opinions with us: indeed, given that she is an experienced journalist, I would be interested to hear her views on various issues.
My concern is that this should be done using an appropriate medium, which could be for instance an opinion piece in a newspaper, magazine, website or blog: in this way it would be both understood as well as be considered legitimate, that the writer has taken up the role of a commentator. But when it comes to news and reportage, maintaining the highest possible objectivity and fairness, is vital. The role of an anchor should be that of a conduit as well as facilitator — and maintaining as much objectivity and fairness as is possible while playing both. I say conduit because the anchor is meant to connect people and their ideas. Facilitator, because when people share their views, they often disagree with one another, and often in a way that a discussion is impeded or comes to a standstill; and sometimes the discussion may even digress from the prescribed topic. The facilitator steps in here to try to find a way of moving ahead and/or maintaining direction, in as objective and fair a manner as possible.

The possible positive flipsides of infotainment, hype and sensational reportage:

Some individuals in the media and the public may subscribe to the notion that, if news is not packaged as infotainment, if news presentations are without hype or sensational reportage, or some degree of misrepresentation somewhere, then nothing would be done about the important issue/s at hand. The government may simply ignore or neglect the issue/s, as they would not feel sufficient pressure — from the build-up of negative public sentiment — to act swiftly. Nor would they feel any compunction because the culpability of the government as a whole or of particular officials within it, or institutions, would get masked in some way. In this case it would be hard to hold any of them accountable in any way.

Thus by engaging in these sorts of questionable professional practices, the media persons would effectively be practising a kind of vigilantism. We are then left with the problematic issue of deciding whether the media or a media person, acting as a sort of ‘Batman’-like crusader, is ultimately good or bad for us. One obvious good: sometimes, the most objective, fairest, most just, methods of action can be frustratingly inefficacious. So taking the ‘matters into one’s own hands’ path becomes an alternative that works. The obvious bad would be that the taking of matters into ones own hands, can set a dangerous precedent for individuals among the public — a sort of: ‘if they did it, then why cannot we?’ Furthermore, there is no guarantee that behind such an action is objectivity and fairness, or that such actions would actually end up serving the interests of a society.

Consider another situation: let us say that a company uses hype and sensational styles in its news as well as in entertainment programs to become commercially successful. As it grows, the company now has the potential to expand its reach and scope. This makes it possible for the company to bring to us news that is more diverse, and at least some analyses that are more comprehensive than before. So here we see an example of the possibility of something positive, growing out of something that started out as negative: questionable practices in the early stages giving way to at least some quality journalism in later stages.

In summary, the sort of questionable journalism that I talk about — including the issue of infotainment in news — is bad insofar as it is dangerous. But in some instances it may prove to be good insofar as being for the greater good, for at least some part of society. Be that as it may, the complete lack of rules, regulations and guidelines in any sphere ultimately leads to chaos, anarchy and a general lack of accountability — even though those rules and regulations may stop some potentially good things from happening, or, they may fail to encompass unforeseen events; in some cases they may not provide justice to each and every one concerned. This imperfection with respect to the nature of rules and laws often leaves me with a feeling of dissatisfaction. But this is the nature of a rule or a guideline: it is a construct that generally speaking, can at best offer an optimal solution with respect to working well for a great majority of people and situations; very few rules work well for everyone and every situation. Moreover, it is a rule that defines transgression: without a body of well defined laws, transgressions are nebulous entities which lack a frame of reference. This would also mean that the extent of transgression in a certain instance cannot be ascertained in the absence of rules. In short, drawing lines of demarcation between acceptable and unacceptable conduct in relation to the media’s operations, is necessary. At the moment these lines are absent; and something needs to be done about it.

End.

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One Comment
  1. Lyn permalink

    please could you give me a list of communication theories that back up infotainment??? its quiet urgent

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