Power of images

Published : Aug 11, 2006 00:00 IST

The task of news channels is to harness the power of television to inform people of what is happening, not tell them what they ought to know and think.

I live in a room that has one window, and through it I see a part of a garden, a tree and a wall. The garden has some straggly grass and a few dusty plants, but the tree is dark and richly green. When I wake up every morning, I go to the window and this is what I see. This is my world; it is what I know of the world.

All right, this is not really true, and you must have guessed as much. But it is a metaphor that is very apt right now of the world as it is interpreted to us by television. Much more so than ever before, our world is the garden, tree and wall that television creates, and every day all three change. Most of us have a world-view that is necessarily limited, and while information through books, newspapers and journals can bring us some glimpses of it, nothing can match the sheer intensity and directness of the television image.

A celebrated programme on the medium shown many years ago had one event reported differently in three different media: a newspaper on a breakfast table had a screaming headline, REAGAN SHOT - bold, dramatic, almost jumping out at you. Then there was on the same table, no paper, but a radio playing cheerful morning music and then, suddenly, it stopped and the crisp voice said: We interrupt this programme to bring you a news flash. The U.S. President Ronald Reagan has been shot. Reagan has been shot. Please stand by as we get more details. More dramatic, even startling. Certainly enough to keep one glued to the radio.

And then there was the television set showing Ronald Reagan coming out of hospital, waving to people, and the air was rent with the sound of gunshots. Reagan grimaced, was immediately grabbed by security-men and pushed into the car in the foreground. Someone screamed, a man shouted, "get those cameras out of here", the image got blurred and jerked about and then the screen went blank.

The newspapers and radio reported the story, as dramatically as they could. Television actually showed you Reagan being shot. It took you to the spot. It was the garden, tree and wall for the moment, your world, of which you were a part. This sequence in the programme Television by Granada TV is one of the most eloquent examples of the immense power of television, compared to the printed word and the radio.

It is, however, powerful in a limited sense; when there is a visually interesting event to be shown, like a fire, or a violent demonstration, or battle scenes. The temptation to turn to campaigns is something few news channels can resist. If properly put together they can make for good television material. We have seen a number of such campaigns presented subtly as news. The issues are, in themselves, not only valid but often, blatant examples of injustice or brutality. But the real point is not that so much as the manner in which television manages them.

Having said that, though, one must say at the same time that they do not, for that reason, become any less valid or important; if anything, the attempts to manage the events clouds them over with manufactured sentiment, which discerning viewers do notice.

Then there comes an event that television reports and, in doing so, not only brings the event into people's minds and hearts, but confers on the protagonists an iconic status. One such was the recent coverage of the rescue of Prince, the six-year-old who fell into a borewell 60 feet deep. Once television channels began covering it, thousands followed the rescue attempts; it was riveting television, the euphoria of the little boy being brought out reaching out to all who watched it happen. In faraway cities sweets were distributed, children cheered and clapped, and for a moment joy united virtually the whole country.

The point, again, is not that television set up the event; it was that they covered it faithfully, as plain, honest to goodness reporters. There were no attempts to dress it up, no organised hand-holding or vigil - this was television doing what it does best, showing viewers just what was happening. We got the painfully slow progress of the rescue, hampered as it was by mud and loose soil at the bottom of the disused well that the Army was using as the rescue route; we got the tension, the terrified yet trusting vulnerability of the little child, obediently doing what he was being told to do; and we got the joy, and the chaos of the final rescue and watched with delight as an Army officer carried the boy into safety.

And as the rescue was a triumph of the Army's dedication and skill over difficult conditions, it was a triumph for television as well, as it confined itself all through the day to plain reporting, something that spoke more eloquently than any crafted attempt to shape reality. In this lies television's strength and danger. Used as it was in covering Prince's rescue it showed its essential characteristics - the raw power of images conveyed directly, images as disjointed as they are in reality, not put across with gloss, not dressed up in any way. In other words, the reactions were left to the viewers; no manager attempted to marshal or organise the reactions. And because of this, the news channels got the viewership they did as millions tuned in to watch the unfolding of the boy's rescue.

Consider this: it was just another accident. There have been, and will be worse incidents. What television did was reveal that in each of these thousands of cases of accidents, and other tragic happenings the human dimension - the hope, the fear, the pain, the joy, the determination, the courage and everything else - is inherent in the situation itself. It just needs to be presented as it is. In another situation a boy falling into a disused well and being rescued or dying in it would have merited passing mention in the media. In this case, television made us participants. And the accident became a major event to us all.

And that is the danger. Television channels that realise just how powerful a medium they are working in can at times begin to believe that they can then use the medium to `create' news out of something that is not, or is not quite what the channel makes it out to be. Which may get viewers at first, but only till they realise they are being managed.

There are other, wiser channels that see this danger and set themselves against it. They see their jobs as reporting events, and they do just that. The analysis and comments are left for later. This is to harness the power of television to work for the ultimate objective - to inform people of what is happening, not tell them what they think, they ought to know and ought to think. In the end, there is no doubt which kind of television the viewers will trust; the one that shows them the garden, tree and wall.

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