Sunday, November 30, 2008

24/7 news and 'No time to Think'

One aspect of this week's atrocity in Mumbai is the questionable role of 24/7 news channels. This report claims that 'Vying for fresh material, they announced attacks where none had happened, backtracked shoddily, and some even claimed to have “interviewed” a terrorist. They harassed the hostages who had just escaped the gruelling experience, and plied their families with intrusive questions.' Smallest details of the security operation was telecast, with terrorists inside the hotels receiving this information till the cable connections were cut off. A 'similar situation in the West would have never seen TV cameras so close to and so revealing of action by security forces', claims this column.

These comments find echo in the insights of this very interesting new book No Time to Think: The Menace of Media Speed and the 24 Hour News Cycle by Feldman and Rosenberg, which 'focuses on the insidious and increasing portion of the news media that, due to the dangerously extreme speed at which it is produced, is only half thought out, half true, and lazily repeated anonymous sources interested in selling opinions and wild speculation as news.'

Should this incident force us to rethink 24/7 news channels? There might yet be a silver lining. After all, these channels did expose the sheer incompetence of the government and its agencies in responding to the situation. To quote another columnist, 'What the television coverage reveals most glaringly, however, is a complete lack of coordination and sense of purpose among the various organs of the state responsible for fighting terror. Television brilliantly captured the scramble and the confusion in the early hours of the crisis. The early pictures of harried officers briefing commandoes hurriedly donning their bullet-proof typified the confusion at the top and while it was great television it did not speak well of a state that should have its terror and media strategy in top gear.'

The jury may still be out, but we do need to evaluate the role of these channels more closely. A negative assessment, however, need not necessarily recommend stringent regulatory control of the sort recommended by the controversial Broadcasting Services Regulation Bill, previously discussed on this blog here, here and here. It might still be possible to explore less draconian legal or self-regulatory measures. For example, its provocative headline notwithstanding, this Outlook column recommends a limited discretion to security agencies to impose a 'delay' of three to six hours on the broadcast of anti-terror operations. This may be a sensible, and minimally infringing, restriction on free speech and will be sufficient to deal with at least some of the problems of 'live' reporting.
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