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Terror on TV, or by TV?

By Rashme Sehgal

Leading television anchors including Barkha Dutt of NDTV and Ashutosh of IBN7 counter questions from our correspondent on the sensationalism, hyperbole, unnecessary editorialising and inaccuracies of the real-time television coverage of the recent Mumbai terror attacks

Sixty hours of watching the tragedy of 26/11 unfold on our television screens has taken a heavy toll on all of us. The war-like violence that exploded in November 2008 was brought into our living rooms in real-time -- guns reverberating, grenades exploding, fire and smoke billowing out of the Taj Mahal hotel, and choppers with heavily armed commandos hovering over buildings in Mumbai's business centre.

But while the horror was being played out for us till the last terrorist was shot dead, another, almost farcical, tragedy was also unspooling before us, leaving us cringing. Despite having 67 news channels (at the present count), not one of them was able to come up with the mix of restrained and balanced reporting that a terror attack of this magnitude required. Instead, young, hysterical reporters betraying their inexperience with every sentence, brought us conflicting reports on the number of casualties, the number of terrorists involved in the incident at the Leopold Café, Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, the number of hostages at the Taj and Trident hotels, and even the number of defence personnel brought in to control this fast-deteriorating situation.

The deluge of near-hysterical reporting on TV brought a unanimous verdict from TV analysts. "It was not terror on TV but terror by TV, with TV channels unleashing their own brand of terror," pointed out journalist Anil Dharker. Film director Anurag Kashyap went a step further, saying: "All that the electronic media managed to do was propagate fear. They had no sense of protocol, complete disregard for the operation. Two senior journalists even went to the extent of fighting with each other over whose coverage was better. Shame!"

Barkha Dutt, group editor of NDTV and Rajdeep Sardesai, editor-in-chief of CNN IBN went to ground zero to cover the situation in the manner of reporters providing 'exclusive' coverage of the attack. The problem with editors eager to don the mantle of reporters is that they are so keen to keep the limelight focused on themselves that overall coverage by the team suffers. And their newsmen back in the studios seem so overawed by their presence that they seldom step in to correct them on basic issues of style or delivery. The sense of competitiveness among the channels was so great that Rajat Sharma's India TV took the unprecedented step of telecasting two live interviews with terrorists holed up at the Oberoi and the Taj.

Editors who rush to do spot crisis reporting end up doing a great disservice to their channel. Giving shape to a crisis story means possessing the ability to be an unbiased observer. It also means that channels need to have in-built systems whereby disaster coverage is seamlessly handled by trained teams of seasoned reporters who are able to steer clear of hyperbole and sensationalism.

Rajdeep Sardesai explained that such criticism levied against his coverage of the attack was unfair. Speaking at a recent media meet in the capital, he claimed that he had spent no more than an hour covering the events; during the rest of the crisis he was stationed at the studio. Barkha Dutt concedes that the Mumbai attack was of an "unprecedented nature" and that nothing in the past, including her coverage of hotspots in Jammu and Kashmir, had prepared the news channels to cover something so sustained and multi-pronged.

She said: "New lessons need to be learned from Mumbai. The government needs to prepare an emergency protocol about delayed telecasts. There could be a 10-20-minute or even longer delay. This should have been indicated from the start. If the government had indicated even once that no channel should go in live, we would all have followed suit. But this was not done. During the NSG commando operation at Nariman House, we (NDTV) gave a 40-minute delay so as not to jeopardise the operation. But this was based on our own assessment of the situation, and not indicated to us."

Asked why the media gave conflicting evidence throughout the operation, Dutt replied: "We were being provided with conflicting information from different sources. The police said one thing, the hotel staff another, and the politicians said something completely different. We were talking to our primary sources but they never spoke in one voice. The situation was dynamic and the media was putting out statistical information, as also information on the hostages. It was the Oberoi spokesperson who said there were 200 people trapped inside the hotel. This remark created a lot of confusion."

Dutt is convinced the government should have created one coordinated point of contact that would have held regular briefings. "That was the way the US dealt with the media after 9/11. But since the government failed to create a centralised dissemination centre headed by a spokesperson, we had several people talking to us. For example, the head of the marine commandos chose to address a press conference even as the operation was still on. If the media has a lot to learn, so does everyone else," she declared.

Ashutosh, managing editor, IBN 7, blamed the government for speaking in conflicting voices. "Former Maharashtra Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh, on record told Rajdeep (Sardesai) that 25 terrorists had participated in the Mumbai attack -- a fact that was later contradicted by his own police chief. In the same way, the naval commander declared at a press conference -- 48 hours after the attack had commenced -- that the Taj had been cleared of all terrorists, which was not the case. It was they who provided all the details; we simply reported what they said.

"The government has to prepare a proper protocol for coverage. If they had been providing us with regular briefings, our coverage would have been more cohesive. Similarly, the government should have indicated how far they wanted the TV cameras to be positioned -- 500 or 1,000 metres. We would have all complied with their requirements.

"Four months ago, when militants held a family in Jammu hostage, the NSG insisted all TV cameras be placed 2 km away from where the operation was being conducted, and we (the TV teams) obliged," Ashutosh continued.

He, along with Barkha Dutt and several other journalists reporting from ground zero, complained that the media was being unnecessarily vilified. Among the accusations made against them was that they had compromised the security of the NSG commandos when they were being airdropped to Nariman House.

"Apart from one channel, all the other news channels gave a delayed telecast, varying from 10 to 45 minutes. The electricity in that area was also cut off, so where was the question of our providing information that assisted the handlers of the terrorists? The real operation took place inside the hotels and Nariman House in which no TV team was allowed. So how did we compromise security," he wondered.

Another accusation deals with the release of information that guests had taken shelter at the Chambers, in the Taj. The terrorists went to the Chambers and opened fire there after they learnt that guests were hiding there. Again, the media in its defence says they only repeated what had been told to them by the hotel staff.

Ashutosh believes the media vilification has been orchestrated by some senior government officials especially after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Minister for External Affairs Pranab Mukherjee complained against the anti- politician slant the Mumbai attack had attained.

Initially, the heads of all government agencies including NSG boss J K Dutt and internal security officials went on record praising the support they had received from the media. But when Mumbaikars collected at the Gateway of India to express their opprobrium against politicians, the government changed its stance and their 'yes men' started talking in terms of reining in the media.

Sixty hours of non-stop news also served to highlight other limitations, including the growing tendency of reporters/anchors to editorialise even while they report.

On being asked to comment on this trend, Barkha Dutt said: "This is a bit subjective. What does it mean to editorialise, especially in the context of our reflecting the mood that is around us? If a reporter is placed in the middle of a space where the overwhelming mood is one of anger with the politicians, he is going to reflect that. Take the case of CNN coverage of Hurricane Katrina where Anderson Cooper's reporting was extremely emotional and passionate. Now that is not the BBC style.

"A style issue cannot be confused with a code of ethics issue. A code of ethics means that we cannot force people to speak (against their will), nor can we spread panic. The accusation that coverage of the attacks was TRP-driven at the cost of ethics is something I reject outright. I speak for my own channel. We were not looking for those extra TRPs. No one, including the print media, can question our intentions. This is a dangerous game. At the end of the day, we all have to learn to strike a balance between TRP ratings and ethical reportage. We have also, in the last 10 years, learnt a great deal. Ten years ago, if there was a bomb blast, we would show ghoulish close-ups of bodies. We are no longer doing that, but the learning curve continues," Dutt insisted.

Television reporters express unhappiness at the mounting criticism against India TV for telecasting "live interviews" with two terrorists. The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting has served notice to Rajat Sharma's channel asking him to explain how his reporters had access to the terrorists' phone numbers and also the ethicality of speaking to them whilst they held Mumbai to ransom.

The question being asked is why the government failed to make any attempts to rein in the channels. The News Broadcasters Association had recently given a pledge that channels would self-regulate and had prepared a set of guidelines that would be adopted across all channels. These have still to be implemented. After 26/11, security agencies are also stepping up the pressure demanding that channels be subject to greater regulation.

Television journalists counter these charges by pointing out that channels across the globe, including Al Jazeera, have telecast tapes that were reportedly shot by members of Al Qaeda. Newspapers and magazines frequently carry interviews of the leaders of LeT and Jaish-e-Mohammad. In fact, Operation Thunder, conducted in 1988, which helped flush Khalistani militants from the Golden Temple in Amritsar, was telecast live by the national broadcaster Doordarshan.

Vinod Mehta, editor-in-chief of the Outlook group of magazines, speaking at the same media meet, said that the difference between print media coverage and television coverage was that while the print media ensured that a reporter's story was vetted at different stages by the chief reporter, the news editor and, in some cases, by the editor himself, this did not happen with television reporting, especially when the coverage was live.

Dutt disagreed. "We follow the same rule as the print media in that every story we telecast is vetted by at least two sources," she said.

Ashutosh maintained: "We have senior people manning the desk and every story will first go to the news desk. In a live situation, even when the reporter has been trained, no one knows what he is going to say. Unless he is very seasoned, he may say something inadvertent and, unfortunately, television is such a powerful tool, every word stands out."

Faced with various challenges, news channels are in the process of evolving. And with the government having failed to create an overarching regulatory body for the channels, each channel owner touts its own mantra of self-regulation.

Said Dutt: "We are not following any foreign model but are in the process of evolving. The BBC has its own code, CNN its own. The present broadcaster code has not been able to arrive at a consensus and so I believe our self-regulation code needs to be fleshed out more. Our own broadcasters did not anticipate this kind of attack. Justice Verma is looking at how the code should be strengthened, with the government also providing inputs. We need to flesh out the code but that does not mean that the government should mandate what the code should be because then that will be an infringement on the media."

Insiders in the business have a different perspective. They claim news channels are completely market-driven.

Alka Saxena, one of the doyens of Hindi news reporting and presently consulting editor with Zee TV, said: "From the time a reporter joins a channel, he is told 'masala wala maal lao, tab hi air par jayega' (bring in a juicy story, only then will it go on air). This line is made to sink into his DNA; so that is what he is on the lookout for. The style of talking, presentation, attitude -- all are determined by this one fact."

TV journalists know only too well that TRP ratings reach their owners'/editors' office on a weekly basis. Every quarter, channel owners receive statements of the profits and losses.

Saxena said: "In the print media the losses may run into a few lakh rupees, but in television the losses every quarter are not less than Rs 20-30 crore. TV viewership has risen exponentially though the ad pie has not expanded as much. Owners treat their channels strictly as a business proposition that must be milked. This is the language the average reporter understands."

Reportage is bound to suffer because of such an attitude, and this will show up much more in a time of crisis. If viewers found terror by TV tough watching, then they had better hold one more candlelight vigil across our cities to protest the sorry state of television news.

InfoChange News & Features, February 2009