(Mohammed Ayoob is University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of International Relations, Michigan State University)
The treatment of the Sushant Singh Rajput case by some TV news channels is a good example of how the interrelated concerns about ratings and revenues drive news coverage in substantial parts of the electronic media. Many of the national news channels have been devoting most of their time covering the controversies surrounding the unfortunate death of the up and coming actor.
This is done in two formats. First, they attempt to provide “factual” coverage of the case through accounts by their reporters of the latest developments in the case that they have gleaned from their “sources”. Second, invited guests billed as experts on this and other similar cases analyse these developments. It is clear that many of these analysts’ comments based on incomplete information are akin to shooting in the dark.
What is worrying is that several channels have transformed themselves into investigative agencies thus appropriating the role that belongs to the police, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and other government agencies. These channels compete with each other to show largely unverified details of the case sometimes implying that such developments implicate one person or another. A great deal of this information, according to them, is collected from WhatsApp messages, details of telephone records, and video recordings. There is little corroboration of the authenticity of such evidence by reputable and independent testing agencies. Moreover, some of the WhatsApp messages contradict what is being claimed in other messages. This leaves the viewer flummoxed.
A matter of concern
What is more disturbing is the claim by some channels that they have received much of the information on the case from investigative agencies ranging from the Enforcement Directorate to the CBI. The authorities need to verify if such claims are true. And if they are proved to be false, legal action should be taken against the offending channels. However, if their claims are true, this is a matter of greater concern because it could bring into serious doubt the reputation of India’s premier investigative agencies that may stand accused of making public details of an ongoing investigation and violating service rules. Furthermore, such leaks, if they have taken place, will leave pivotal agencies of the government open to legal challenges during the course of the case, especially if it turns out that the information allegedly leaked by them does not correspond to the eventually discovered facts.
An equally major offense that these news channels are committing is to make a case of the unfortunate death of Sushant not only into a spectacle but also a matter of such national importance that it has almost completely dwarfed the coverage of multiple grave problems facing the nation. These include the pandemic that shows no sign of abating with cases rising exponentially and putting the public health system under unbearable strain. They also include the serious economic downturn that predates the pandemic but has been greatly exacerbated by the drastic reduction of economic activity following the outbreak. The sorry plight of millions of migrant labourers caused by the lockdown has been almost totally ignored in the rush to cover this case. The tensions on the India-China border that have the potential to escalate into a serious military conflict have also been all but forgotten.
The mainstream electronic news media, it can be argued, has demonstrated a serious lack of judgment by distorting national priorities in its coverage presumably in search of ratings. If true, this shows a lack of moral sense that has turned an unfortunate death into a melodrama in order to capture viewership and increase revenues. So far, the social media has been the target of attack for irresponsible behaviour. The coverage of this case by the mainstream electronic news media lays it open to the same charge.