When India’s oldest and most influential news industry body, the News Broadcasters Association, and the recently established News Broadcasting Federation issued their welcome note on the Supreme Court’s order to fight the menace of fake news, the first thing that struck my mind was that why were the news bodies in slumber till now and why wasn't any advisory or guidelines on reporting issued.
If one were to recall, the NBA had issued guidelines for reporting on the Ayodhya verdict.
Then why not for Covid-19?
Is it a smaller issue, comparatively? I asked the office of the association.
Within a few hours, I received an email from NBA titled “Advisory on Reporting Covid-19 Crisis”.
In the backdrop of the apex court’s order, the advisory read, “Member broadcasters are advised that any content used from social media platforms in their news programmes should be thoroughly verified at the highest editorial levels before being telecast.
“In these circumstances member broadcasters could also consider telecasting the positive steps being taken by various individuals/ persons/ entities / governments and all medical personnel in order that objective, balanced, accurate and impartial news gets telecast.”
Concerned with the potential damage fake news can do, the SC noted that such persons shall be punished under the Disaster Management Act, 2005. However, it said it does not intend to interfere with free discussion on the pandemic, but “directed the media to refer to and publish the official version about the developments”.
Undoubtedly, the news channels are being hailed for their public service in disseminating information across the country. By and large, they are discharging their duties with great responsibility just like medical, sanitation staff, police and other people related to essential services. But, in the absence of any conscience keeper on Covid-19 related reporting, a few news channels were losing track on several occasions. And the blind race for television ratings is one of main reasons.
In my earlier commentary, I had argued: “why seeking suspension of TV ratings is a bad idea”. But the apex court’s order strengthens the case of those who sought to suspend TV ratings during the Covid-19 crisis.
If you work, you are bound to make mistakes. But you need to stop, introspect, accept and correct the mistakes, and learn from them so that you do not repeat that again. And, anyone can make a mistake. He/she could be NBA President Rajat Sharma or NBF President Arnab Goswami.
Sharma, one of the most powerful journalists and a media owner in India, wears the hat of the President of NBA, and he should have used his charisma to guide all the editors across all the member channels and planned a strategy for cleanest possible coverage by them. So should Goswami. They must rise above their self-interest, and care for the industry.
I will reuse a small part of my previous commentary: it is time for the news channels to both make and break it. If all the news channels feel somewhere that they are doing public service, they should do it without keeping viewership in mind. Today a channel can earn TRPs by trivialising things but it would be tough for them to correct their broken images. Those who are trying to win viewers’ hearts with their sensitivity and sanity too shall be remembered for discharging their duties in the toughest times and conditions.
There could not be a larger responsibility than not misinforming people during this time. While the channels are abiding by the guidelines put in place by the government and reporting numbers only shared by appropriate authorities, they seem to be lacking compassion, especially when an anchor on a news channel allegedly said on the day of the PM’s second address to the nation that there could be demonetisation again as currency notes could be a carrier of the coronavirus.
The Indian Banks Association and CAIT have said currency notes could carry coronavirus but linking to an unseen fear of demonetisation is highly irresponsible.
Several news anchors across channels are seen indulged in fear-mongering with their tones of live cricket commentary. Will there be any comprehensive advisory by both the news bodies to maintain sanity in news? What more will it take for news channels to behave sanely if this pandemic is not enough?