Why Indian media should take some cues from ‘The Newsroom’

The reporting on Election 2014 is going from bad to worse.

Before you get into a bunch, I do understand the The Newsroom is an idealistic show, meant for TV. Even Aaron Sorkin, the show’s creator, admits the show was not written to show journalists how to cover the news. But it doesn’t mean there aren’t a few cues to be taken. I’ve spent some time in collegiate journalism — that’s not to say it was lesser than regular journalism, we were bound by the same ethics codes dictated by the Associated Press. I still use ‘em’ vs ‘en’ dashes rather than just hyphens as you will find in this blog. We were also guideline’d when it came to facts, reporting about ourselves, and authenticity of sources. And I think here the Indian media has a lot to learn.

Election season is afoot in the world’s largest democracy, and in my attempt to track it as well as understand it, I rely on the media. Off late though, I find that I spend more time reading and looking at source interviews rather watch TV or rely on a lot of media, because I find the focus is TRP rather than fact or focus, points I raise in more detail below.

Aside from the show, idealism and fanfare, for me the key to The Newsroom lies in this key phrase: ‘..nothing is more important to a democracy than a well-informed electorate’.


Where are the facts?

Spend 20 minutes on any TV channel and all you will hear is ‘Rahul Gandhi said this today’ and ‘Narendra Modi said that’. Shouldn’t there be some responsibility towards actually representing the facts? Correcting them if they are wrong?

As an example, when Rahul Gandhi says tons of land was given away at ridiculous (he actually says INR1 per sq. m) to the Adani Group by the Government of Gujarat. Narendra Modi claims in return that there is no wrong doing and the Supreme Court validated their land deals. Instead of the headline ‘Gandhi family makes its strongest attack on Modi’ and ‘Modi sharpens attack on the Gandhis’, shouldn’t you perhaps spend some time to review the Supreme Court verdict that says the model by which the Govt. of Gujarat allocated this land should be replicated by other states?

Conversely, when people like Uma Bharti allege that Robert Vadra would go to prison over misdealing in land ownership, the Congress comes out to defend him. Great, but shouldn’t you rake up evidence of no-wrongdoing, or bring up public records of the Government land deals that are a matter of public record, or at least should be?

Instead the media spend time running from one party to another asking for a comment rather than doing any work.

One more example just to drive home the point. In Rahul Gandhi’s constituency of Amethi (he’s the incumbent MP), Priyanka Vadra (his sister who is campaigning for him there) and Smriti Irani (running for the same seat) are fighting that the other never visits the constituency. So get on it, visits and interviews are public record. Prove either one of them wrong!

What is equally bad are the translations and misrepresentations. I can’t even get into the examples here but I urge the media to translate and quote correctly. Enough headlining.


Where is the focus?

Sit through an evening debate and the only thing the anchors and channels want to talk about is how bad was one person’s statement over another. There’s never a discussion of facts — often, it’s a direct misquote — but moreover, there doesn’t seem to be any focus either.

Take the example of Mumbai which went to vote last week. Initial estimates say anywhere between 3 and 6 lac names were unavailable, Was there a debate (not talking just a quick newsbite) on the item? Nope. Did anything raise a fuss over the action taken by the Election Commission (they apologized and said they would fix it before the next election for the State Elections in two years)? Nope.

Here’s another. On the same day, half of Bollywood decided to honor their yearly commitments to IIFA and attend the IIFA Awards in Florida rather than vote. Except a passing mention on the channels, who chose instead to highlight and interrupt coverage with ‘Breaking News’ when they spotted a new celebrity coming to vote, there was not a single debate. I only found IndiaTV take the coverage a little further, and spend time asking actors at IIFA in the US about the fact that they did not vote. Most of the response revolved around contractual obligations. Anupam Kher even went so far as to say, and I quote, ‘for me India is first’, but we have contractual obligations. Let’s not forget here that there was a large and vocal outreach on voting made by Bollywood to vote for a secular government.


Where is the bias?

In the early episodes of The Newsroom, the editorial team insist anchor Will McAvoy make clear he is a Republican, something he has shied away from declaring prior to the start of the show’s timeline. This was interesting. The journalism I’m attuned to needs to be as neutral as possible, but I understand in this day and age, and in political discourse, it is a different story.

Let’s be clear that there is nothing wrong with having one. Journalists are voters too, and have every right to view their choice. But declaring this choice helps unskew their reporting. Knowing McAvoy is a republican makes it that much more credible when he then takes on a Republican candidate on fact. Simultaneously, he can no longer just hardline at the Democrats because his bias would make his interviews less credible. His responsibility increases as a result to stay closer to, and argue on facts, since anything else would make him less relevant.

The same must apply to the Indian media. I’m not saying everyone needs to come out and say whom they are voting for, just that it needs to be less biased and more factual. When you are held so closely to your bias, you automatically need to stay on facts to be relevant.


Make of this what you will. Recently, in an interview by ABPNews, an interviewer asked PM candidate Narendra Modi if the media should fear him if he comes to power. Barring the sadness of this thought process, the answer is impressive indeed. Slightly paraphrased, Modi said ‘If you’re scared of a political leader, you shouldn’t be in the media. For a democracy to function, the media needs to be strong.’ The interview is here for verification.

Criticism by the media, holding our public figures accountable is paramount. It’s not about being scared of a political party or a leader; but it’s also not about sensationalism. Everything is not breaking news. You have a responsibility to present the factual truth, and in this regard and my opinion, you’re failing miserably.

Chirag Desai @Chirag