Waking up to murders and rapes

Addressing a batch of trainee journalists, of which I was a part, in Delhi in 1994, the editor of a renowned international magazine said, ‘Most planes land safely at Heathrow airport. They don’t make news. It is the one plane that has a mishap while landing that makes news. London newspapers won’t have a headline saying ‘5,326 flights land safely at Heathrow today’. But they will report any landing that is not normal.’ He went on to say that the media are reporting rise in marital discord and divorce in some societies because despite the rise they are not the norm. The definition of news is that the norm is not news, anything unusual is. So the fact that the rise in divorce is becoming news shows that marital well-being is still the norm in society. Marital disharmony is becoming news because it is not the norm. A common example given to explain what makes something news is that if a dog bites a man it is not news but if a man bites a dog it is.

A person forms his opinion about the state of his neighbourhood, his country, his society and the world through the media. By the definition of news, the media tell readers and viewers about all that is not the norm and out of the ordinary in the world. That means news will be about unusual wrong things like violence, discord and maladies in society. Right things like peace, harmony and good health won’t be reported because they are the norm and so cannot be news. So if the media are guided by the definition of news, then they will be full of negative developments. Over time, people tuned to the media will begin to think that everything is wrong with life because they will get to see and hear about only wrong things through the media. A whole society fed by media doing their job of dishing out negative things will get the opinion that the world has become a negative place whereas the truth will be that the world is largely still a positive place and the media are full of the negative side because the negatives are not the norm and are, therefore, news.

This is what has made many people disgusted with media coverage. People wake up in the morning to be told about murders, rapes, corruption, malnutrition, illnesses, accidents, catastrophes and disasters. They tend to think that is all that is happening around them and after some time their opinion of the world around them gets distorted and misformed. It cannot be denied that the negative developments need to be mentioned in the media. But the media should realise that they are making people form an unbalanced opinion of society that is unhealthy and not the whole truth. It is time the media decided to report ordinary good things taking place around us.

That brings us to another traditional criterion for classification of anything as news. News is about famous, important or extraordinary people. Their actions and lives become news. So if Dev Anand dies, he gets two pages in newspapers and a day-long homage on all TV channels. But if Malti Devi, a daily wage labourer paving a road in Delhi with molten pitch under a scorching sun in summer, dies due to heat stroke, there’s not a stir in the media. She is a very, very ordinary person. So she cannot be a media story, she cannot be news, at best her death can be lent to statistics: ‘15 die of heat stroke in Delhi’. Most people in any society are ordinary, commonplace. And most developments on a given day have nothing special about them. But ordinary stories from the life of ordinary people can tell a lot about important aspects of life. I talked about the preponderance of negative things in media reports because of the definition of news as something unusual. A shift in reporting to the seemingly humdrum existence of common people will portray the lively positive energy with which they wage titanic everyday battles on roads, at homes, in offices, in bazaars, and at other nondescript places.

The media will tap into real life if they tell stories of commoners getting through their day, straining every nerve and sinew, offering their best every moment, conjuring ingenious tricks of survival on the go and being alert and nimble like gazelles in a jungle. Overall, the strain and striving, heaving and shoving, pining and dreaming of common people in their daily life are largely positive and inspiring accounts and need to be highlighted in the media.

It would amount to democratisation of the media, quite at variance with its present preoccupation with the unordinary and special. Media would do well in serving society by changing the definition of news to encompass the ordinary things that make up the life of ordinary people. Media that are about the regular stuff that marks the life of regular people would be closer to reality than media bound by their definition of their job to special people and events.

The author is a senior journalist and columnist
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