Saturday, July 05, 2008

The crime merchants

Source: The Hindu


If crime and real-life violence are easy ways of increasing the consumer base for news channels today, it is because the demand is there, with new viewers bringing in different expectations. Why this obsession with morbidity?

We now have the statistics to quantify just how much of an overkill the Aarushi-Hemraj double murder case saw from the media. A study by the Centre for Media Studies (CMS) says that six channels beamed news and special programmes on the double murder for 39.30 hours out of a total 92 hours prime time — from 19:00 hrs to 23:00 hrs — between May 16 and June 7.

That’s 42 per cent of prime time over 23 days. The following channels — DD News, Zee News, Aaj Tak, Star News, NDTV 24x7 and CNN-IBN — telecast 234 news reports and 62 special programmes during the period. While Zee News topped the list with a coverage of close to 11 hours with 48 reports and 21 special programmes, DD News’ coverage of the crime was at the bottom with 24 reports running into just 41 minutes over the 23 days under review. Thank the Lord for small mercies.

When crime pays

What are the ways in which to live off a crime story? Here is a random but authentic sampling.

  • Times Now tracking her calls from cell phone call records leaked to them. Run numbers and times on the screen of who called Aarushi when, whom she called when.
  • NDTV showing a video of the dead girl doing normal things when she was alive.
  • Zee News informing us that this is the day when the CBI’s remand over Krishna ended. So? So nothing, just reminding you, that’s the news.
  • India TV conducting a monologue on a TV tower. Intoning, “Yeh mobile tower sab jaanta hai. Sector 25 ka tower. Sector 19, 20, 21 ke range mein hai.” This is the mobile tower that knows it all. Show it rising above the rooftops and say, Who was where? What was their location? This tower knows it all.
  • Headlines Today’s long feature on unsolved murders which enables them to dwell on each one, and fill a half hour slot.
  • Cyrus Broacha being funny on CNN IBN: “The CBI is looking for a khukri. Why look for a khukri when you already have a Talwar?”
  • Aaj Tak showing two presenters going around a flat which they said was exactly similar to the Talwars’ and was in the same complex. They show us the location of Arushi’s room and her parent’s room and Hemraj’s room. There is a model lying on the bed in Aarushi’s “room” placed exactly like it reportedly was, and there are blood stains on the door. (They kept saying this was reconstructed from CBI information) Then build a case for the fact that there was no way her parents could not have heard noises, despite the AC. Ergo, the Talwars’ testimony is fishy.
  • India TV’s amateur sleuthing: Krishna is lying when he says he flushed the khukri down the toilet. But look, we’ll show you how 10 minutes of repeated flushing does not flush a khukri! So a potty was there for 10 minutes on the TV screen, sometimes in the foreground, sometimes in the background, flushing away.
  • The judgment is announced in the Bijal date rape case. Headlines Today reconstructs the case with alacrity, using music and taglines like “Love Destroyed”. The anchor has an unhurried conversation with the victim’s sister. Then it goes off into Date Rape as an issue and live off that for several minutes.
  • News 24, Breaking News: No evidence against Rajesh! No evidence against Nupur! Wow. That really is breaking news, isn’t it?

    Did we become crime junkies overnight? Or are we seeing the multiplier effect of a trend that has been for some time in the making?

    Commercial compulsions

    Selling crime (and through it morbidity) are the route to widening the consumer base for news. Hindi newspapers emphasised crime when they were catering to first-time subscribers and trying to create readers in places where there had been none. Back in 2003, sitting in the office of the Hindustan in Patna, I got my first lesson in the importance of crime news and criminals. Said the resident editor: “Gangsters have become MLAs. Every political leader, every criminal wants to be covered in the Hindustan.” And the chief executive of the paper said that they worked hard to figure out what new readers in small towns and villages wanted to read about: “Crime news they want of whole State. Political news they do not want. Crime is on top of everybody’s concern, crime has to be there.”

    It takes demand to create supply. Crime would not trigger the media imagination the way it does without a society which hankers for such coverage. So what is it about middle class TV consumers the world over which makes crime coverage so irresistible to them? One answer is that it affects their lives. It has immediacy. As the owner of News 24 said in an interview a couple of years ago, to a man in Bahraich, it’s far more important that a local criminal has been caught than the talk about government formation in Bihar.

    That’s one part of the argument. The other is that with the steady influx of new news consumers into the viewer universe, there are constant shifts in a country like India in what people want to see on a news channel. A Star News executive commenting on news trends in 2007 said that the last few years had seen more new viewers added, many of whom have non-traditional preferences. A new news consumer is inevitably a less sophisticated news consumer, more attracted to neighbourhood crime and bizarreness than matters of State.

    Channels responded by adding reality show content news. The Star executive said, in 2007, news became more encompassing than ever before. “Thus, it was no coincidence that the year of experimentation was also the year that saw genre expansion.” (On Get that: when news stretches to encompass the bizarre and freakish, it is called genre expansion. Such expansion has now taken India TV to the top of the ratings chart.

    Changing definitions

    Statistics illustrate the broader trend of shifts in the content of news. The Centre for Media Studies in Delhi did a study which showed that the time spent on political news in the year 2007 has come down by more than 50 per cent. Political news coverage by Hindi news channels dipped from 23.1 per cent in 2005 to 10.09 per cent in 2007.

    But sports, entertainment, crime and human interest news coverage almost doubled from 27.9 per cent in 2005 to 53.1 per cent in 2007. At the same time, agriculture, education, health and environment-related news have not seen any net change; their coverage has been as insignificant in 2007 as earlier. Corruption, TV executives report, is no longer of interest to their audiences.

    Another important catalyst has been competition itself. With each new channel that breaks into the market, the distribution costs rise because DTH bouquets and cable operators increase their carriage fees. This now runs into a few crores per channel. When competition increases and distribution costs increase you balance your budget by cutting on news gathering costs. India TV recently spent a good 15 to 20 minutes showing how a magician had made a prostrate girl rise into the air without visible support.

    Think of what it would have cost to substitute that time period with hard news from several locations, and you will know why we see the news we do.

    The assault on young minds

    Photo: G.R.N. Somashekar

    Growing up with the TV: When children are the audience, channels need to be discriminating.

    Television is called The Other Parent because of the amount of time children spend in its company. In a book titled The Other Parent: The Inside Story of the Media’s Effect on our Children, Stanford professor James P. Steyer argues that the lack of social responsibility in many media companies as they cater to stockholders over children has meant that children are exposed to sex, coarseness, violence, and commercialism long before they are ready to understand them.

    In the Aarushi murder case, middle and upper middle class children too were sufficiently exposed to the crime’s coverage for the following to be noticed:

  • Children who reported a new fear of servants in the house.
  • Children who developed a fear of what their own parents could do to them.
  • Older children who were disturbed at the loss of privacy suffered by a dead teenager.

    Steyer suggests the following are essential for parents to do:

  • Putting kids on a media diet
  • Finding alternative activities for them besides television and the Internet.
  • Discovering what they think about the commercials, programmes and music they encounter on a daily basis.
  • Organising advocacy groups, contacting government leaders, and boycotting media outlets that target children with inappropriate content.

    Our news channels would argue that they do not target children. But the majority of Indian homes are one-room homes where children watch what adults watch. Parents will need to make more of an effort to understand what children absorb from the media they consume.

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