It’s nine PM! Just a few hours ago 27 people including four children and eleven women died following a stampede on the banks of the river Godavari during the first day of a religious festival in Rajahmundry, Andhra Pradesh. News reports also suggested that more than 60 sustained serious injuries.
Significantly the same day saw the three-member Supreme Court appointed committee deliver the much awaited IPL verdict. The committee headed by former Chief Justice of India RM Lodha not only banned Chennai Super King’s Gurunath Meiyappan and Rajasthan Royal’s Raj Kundra for life because of their involvement in betting but it also banned their respective franchises Chennai Super Kings and Rajasthan Royals for two years from participating in the cash rich Indian Premier League.
The five English language news channels are gearing up for the all important nine O’clock show. Arnab Goswami’s The Newshour is slated to hold two debates. The first one is centred around the #IPLCleanUp whereas the second debate is on the struggle ensuing between Samajwadi Party supremo Mulayam Singh Yadav and IPS Amitabh Thakur. The relatively quieter Barkha Dutt is holding debates on the same two subjects on NDTV 24*7‘s The Buck Stops Here.
Nation At 9 on News X anchored by Athar Khan is also debating IPL with the hashtag #SaveOurCricket. Returning from a break after 45 minutes into the programme News Today At 9 which obviously debated the #IPLVerdict earlier, India Today‘s Consulting Editor Rajdeep Sardesai proclaims that “there is another big story” referring to the Andhra Pradesh stampede and terms it a “tragedy”. This is followed by a short news package on the same which eventually makes way for speed news.
CNN IBN‘s India At 9 presented by Palki Upadhyay followed the herd by debating IPL and devoting a short news package towards the end to the Andhra Pradesh stampede in which they ran bytes of Andhra Chief Minister N Chandrababu Naidu and Congress leader Chiranjeevi.
This was the news agenda of the five English language news channels. They were unanimous in their assessment of the #IPLVerdict as the biggest news story of the day. Channel after channel debated IPL during prime time and the stampede in Rajahmundry sadly became just “another big story”.
As media students we are often told how to determine the news worthiness of a particular news item. One of the determinants could be the number of people that the story affects. Hence, it was important for news channels to hold discussions in order to dissect the stampede in Andhra Pradesh. What caused the stampede? What precautions were in place? What do the victims have to say? How did the government respond? But these questions were surely left unanswered as the story was relegated to headlines and passing news packages.
Why did a tragedy of such a large scale lose out to the #IPLVerdict in terms of news value? The answer lies in the 3Cs ie Cricket, Cinema and Crime. IPL is an amalgamation of the 3Cs as also the “P” of politics. Together they trumped the other “C” which is the common man. Such lopsided news coverage seems to corroborate the words of former Press Council of India Chairman Justice Markandey Katju who argued that the Indian media was predominantly occupied with superficialities like Bollywood and Cricket.
Another important constituent of news worthiness is proximity. That’s where Andhra Pradesh clearly lost out. A stampede which occurs far away from Delhi or rather Sector 16 in Noida Film City where a large chunk of the domestic media stands is likely to be given a miss. The easiest way of running a news channel is to make it discussion-centric instead of revolving around reportage. Ground reports require extensive budgeting and hiring of media professionals to collate news from around the country and the globe. Indian channels clearly lack in terms of reportage coming in from the north eastern states or even a non-Hindi speaking state like Andhra Pradesh as they don’t have reporters at such places.
The reception to the Andhra Pradesh stampede would have been different had it happened in and around Delhi or if the loss of lives was a result of an act of terror. The chest thumping, ultra-nationalist elements within the media would have taken up the issue in a big way debating cross border terrorism on prime time. But it wasn’t a terror attack and thus, not much coverage.
Those who feel that the rot is limited to the electronic media need to think again. The front page of Hindustan Times (Lucknow edition) doesn’t even make a mention of the Andhra Pradesh stampede. They have rather decided to go with the #IPLVerdict, Prime minister Modi’s Ufa diplomacy and US-Iran nuclear deal. The front page of Times of India (Lucknow edition) has devoted a three-column news report to the stampede near the bottom of the page beneath IPL, nuclear deal, AAP’s plea for funds and Indo-Pak ties.
It’s high time for the domestic media to overcome hysteria. Stories revolving around the rich and the powerful are important. Court judgements and pronouncements ought to be covered. Foreign policy is news worthy and so is terrorism. But the people are most important. News has to be representative and not merely Delhi-centric. News channels and newspapers should invest more in reporting and increasing the headcount of reporting in areas like Rajahmundry where television cameras don’t reach that often. Geographical reach of news channels has to be expanded so that tragedies like the one in Rajahmundry don’t go under-reported.
(This article was originally published in DailyO.)