Although the choice of news is the prerogative of experienced journalists, unconscious biases creep in, leading to excessive coverage of certain events and omission of important developments.
FOR the better part of the last two weeks, one has become increasingly aware of being bombarded with news about the feud between the Ambani brothers, Mukesh and Anil. Every letter written, every comment made, even a phrase used, was eagerly noted and splashed in newspapers and discussed ad nauseam on television news channels. Experts tied themselves in knots trying to analyse the import of a statement by the one, a note written by the other - or by their camp followers.
I have to confess that I found all this inexplicable. The significance of the break-up of the largest corporate house in the country - and one of the largest in the world - is important news, true enough. Apart from the inevitable re-ordering of organisations and companies, the repercussions on the stock market of such an event is considerable, affecting thousands of shareholders. But we know all this; it's not as if a huge fraud has been unearthed, shaking the corporate world to its foundations; what has happened is, in a sense, something that was inevitable, two sons dividing their father's empire between them. Why then the enormity of the media gaze? Why the daily headlines, often on the front page, the seemingly endless discussions on television, which I, for one, found tiresome?
The climax was, of course, the live coverage by all television news channels of a press conference by Anil Ambani, down to the last trifling question and answer. Around the same time, Union Petroleum Minister Mani Shankar Aiyar had a press conference on his recently concluded agreements on gas supplies and oil exploration in different countries, and among these is a path-breaking agreement with Pakistan and Iran on a pipeline passing through these two countries to India. That press conference was not covered live by any news channel; what he said was reported in terms much less excited than those in which Anil Ambani's speech were carried both in print and on television. Yet, the implication of those agreements were, and are, of far greater significance to the country than what the younger Ambani had to say.
The truth is that what Mani Shankar Aiyar had to say did not immediately affect anyone's personal cash reserves; but the Ambani statements did, as we saw. The stock markets went soaring up, and that must have been a joyous day for all those who held shares in one or the other of the Reliance companies. They had become that much richer. And their numbers are certainly not small; there would be thousands, hundreds of thousands perhaps, who stood to gain something from all this.
But the millions of our farmers, the millions whose livelihood depends on the regular availability of power, are much more than the number of shareholders in Reliance companies. The lives of the former will, over the next few years, certainly change thanks to Mani Shankar Aiyar's persuasive powers with the Pakistanis, and with the enigmatic Iranians. Why was it then that the media was so obsessed with the Ambani brothers and the crores they shared between them?
It finally comes down to the fact that owners of media houses, or most of them, relate far more directly to people like the Ambanis, and are not at the end of the day more concerned over energy agreements. I am not saying they are not; of course they are, as news people, but when it is a question of priorities it is evident what those priorities are. True, there are news editors who are very concerned with the news and with what they consider to be real, hard news - and they thought that the Ambani story was real, hard news. Why? Because it was a giant corporate house whose activities affect many of us? That may well be true, and one cannot for that reason dispute the fact that the Ambani split-up was indeed news; what is difficult to comprehend is the obsession with it, the waiting with bated breath, the live coverage, the forest of cameras and excited journalists outside the Ambani office.
WE come up, consequently, once again against that perennially worrying issue - not what is news, but just how does one news item measure against another? There are, today, some who are trying to recast the identity of news. News is what people want, they say, so we must give it to them. Again it is not a question of what people want not being news and what experienced journalists consider to be hard news. Both are news, but the kind of news in each case is different, and the issue is what kind of news television viewers and newspaper readers ought to be given. I say `ought' with due consideration. Every story featured in a paper or news bulletin on radio and television is a conscious exercise of the prerogative of the news editor to carry one story over another, or give the latter a lesser position.
It is here that some unconscious biases can, and do, creep in. These are often just taken as natural decisions regarding news, as the excessive coverage of the Reliance story was. And why was that just taken to be so very crucial, deserving the daily coverage it got? The primary factor is that the Reliance empire has very close links with the most powerful in the land - practically all political leaders when in and out of power have, for example, used aircraft from the Reliance fleet. The second factor is that, in the dispute between Mukesh and Anil, both used the media by feeding them stories, and it was only a few who did not oblige, and carry them. The result was `news' that was, to many of us, oddly skewed; a plethora of stories about this dispute, and relatively cursory notice given to other stories that would otherwise have been truly worth reporting extensively.
A different example of how all this works, and for entirely different reasons, is the declarations being made by the Bharatiya Janata Party-Vishwa Hindu Parishad-Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh combine on Mohammed Ali Jinnah, Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and others. They, on their part, can make whatever declarations they like, shout whatever slogans they choose to; but the kind of media attention they are given is the issue here. Again the news value of such declarations cannot be denied; but at a time when a number of significant events are taking place in the subcontinent, are these so shocking or startling, as to merit more than the odd reference? And where newspapers have relatively less pressure on them - having more pages and space for all kinds of stories - television bulletins have to choose carefully between stories, since their time is limited.
This is a sensitive and difficult area, I realise. No one can lay down what news is, and what the relative value of one story is over another. These are matters of perception of the news sense of editors and analysts. One can only point to instances of excessive coverage or what seem to be scanty coverage and wonder why this happens.
The media have played, and will continue to play, a major role in providing people with information, and of instances of wrongdoing, or fraud or of events that affect our lives individually or as a community. In this process, it is inevitable that occasionally the media themselves will be looked at, if not with critical, then with uncomprehending, eyes.