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Not much enlightenment

By Sevanti Ninan

In the coverage of the Delhi blasts, the 15 channels did not make for more illumination. And never once was advertising put on hold.

"The law of blanket disaster coverage is that the less hard news you have, the longer you spin it out."

ALERT: The Indian channels were focussed on the chaos on the ground. A scene in Paharganj. PHOTO: R.V. MOORTHY

WHEN something catastrophic happens these days, the news sources are many and the reporting begins almost instantly. When the earthquake hit Muzaffarabad, the news got on to television channels within 10 minutes of the pictures on my walls at home shaking vigorously. And on Saturday, news of the first blast at Paharganj, which occurred around 5.25 p.m., was on air well before 6 p.m. An hour after the first blast, I counted the sources available at that point: Aaj Tak, Tez, India TV, Star News, DD News, NDTV 24x7, NDTV Profit, Headlines Today, BBC, CNN, CNBC, CNBC Awaaz, Sahara Samay and a new channel called Total. Fourteen, and if you counted the occasional despatches on the Japanese channel NHK, then it was 15. An excess of sources does not make for more enlightenment. Nobody had very much more than anybody else, but some were more single-minded than others.

Delhi: Indian channels versus foreign

The Indian channels were uniformly focused on the bedlam on the ground, Star News quickly getting a split screen going from a hospital and two blast sites. And until more footage came in, you got an extended shot of two chappals lying in debris. The reporters peddled what they could see, and sometimes used their imagination. CNBC Awaaz said their correspondent was the first to reach the site after the blasts. Then the studio anchor asked the reporter what the scene was like before the blasts, and she proceeded to tell him that too. If she got there after the blasts you wondered how she knew.

The foreign channels had only passing interest in the mayhem on the ground. They picked up the terrorism angle to run with almost instantly. CNN got a Sri Lankan terrorism expert on the line from Singapore, BBC rounded up an Indian in London. CNN was asking Rohan Gunaratna, whose speculation had already named the Lashkarya-e-Taiba, what sort of weapons such groups might have. Then they got Sanjay Baru on the line and were able to say, "We have confirmation from officials that they consider it a terrorist attack."

Next Shiela Dikshit came on the line. Given that a chief minister would presumably have more urgent business to attend to barely two hours after serial blasts in her city, she allowed the unhurried CNN anchor to pursue her quest for terrorism leads for what seemed like an inordinately long time. "What does this fact suggest to you before a major religious festival? I appreciate that it is too early but as you and your officials discuss this who is coming to mind?"

Across 14 channels, it was amazing how uniform the behaviour pattern was. At home, focus was on the death and destruction, abroad, on who the killers might be. The CNN-BBC approach was almost identical, as was all the Indian coverage. All the business channels moved away from the story by 10 p.m. or so, and when they returned to it the next day, it was to take up the markets angle. The first day all the domestic news channels preferred to try and take their leads on who was behind the attack from the cops on the scene rather than from any terrorism expert.

Live coverage continued through the night, and advertising was never put on hold. Star News was blanking out all else even 24 hours later. The law of blanket disaster coverage is that the less hard news you have, the longer you spin it out. Your man on the scene begins to pontificate: "Pura desh janna chahata hai ki 24 ghante ke bad Dilli police ne kya kiya. ( The whole country wants to know what Delhi police has managed to uncover after 24 hours"). This on Aaj Tak from reporter to anchor in studio.

NDTV 24x7 chose by late night Saturday to move on, and give news on the progress of talks on opening up points on the Line of Control. It certainly seemed the more intelligent thing to do.

Tailpiece: In the aftermath of the blasts, Star News was running a ticker soliciting pictures taken by viewers so that it could carry them on the channel. On India TV, Rajat Sharma runs a commercial featuring himself in which he says "do you know how we got the Dawood Ibrahim footage? It was sent to us by a viewer. If you have news, shoot it and send it to us," he urges. Is amateur newsgathering set to become the norm?

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