Addicts to sensation

It was like any other day. I sat with my eyes moving from my gmail inbox to an English news channel, which drew me, need I clarify, towards the United Nations, with our Prime Minister emphatically making his presence felt on the minds of everyone inside and outside that iconic space. Will he address the ‘K’ issue? What will be his form of rebuttal?

But suddenly the scene shifted. It was a pavement in Chennai. Women and men were bawling, screaming and cursing the judge who had the gall to send their beloved Amma to jail. Anchors and on-site reporters from Chennai and Bangalore gave us a running commentary on every car, cycle, auto and van that entered or left the court house or Chief Minister Jayalalithaa’s residence.

Cut the scene here…

Within minutes, we were transported back into the United Nations and its vicinity to feel the Modi wave. Supporters had arrived in and around his hotel and the excitement was palpable.

In between all this there was the small matter of the floods in Assam and Meghalaya. As I write, I understand that over four lakh people have been affected and 85 people are dead. But this ‘minor’ story was like a 30-second ad film placed between two mega-serials.

This sequence repeated itself through the day with the occasional Asian Games news sandwiched in-between. All in all, that day, Jayalalithaa was the star.

The reporter around the Modi fanfare was as charged as every one of the fans in New York. The anchor in the studio was pumped up and Modi’s every word was heard and noted. But when it came to Jayalalithaa, the reporting on this channel became somewhat, shall I say, detached, impersonal.

But when the telecast turned to the floods, the anchor could be seen attempting an empathetic tone.

Is it humanly possible for a person who jumps from story one to three within 10 minutes only to swipe back to story two to actually feel? The truth is that, after a point of time, the anchor is an actor who knows how he needs to sound and look depending on the story being told. He is the package, curated to perfection giving us ‘content’ that after a point is immaterial. Why do I say immaterial? Because, on that day, people losing their homes and lives in Assam were not as important as Modi or Jayalalithaa. They could wait for another 24 hours to receive their television time-share.

One may say that news is like life where death and birth, joy and suffering come together, one after another. In a way, may be news channels are philosophical levellers. A fascinating thought indeed! But the issue here is not about the varied news reports being targeted at us. It is about a conscious plan to sell news, where the channel clearly places market value on the kind of news that needs to reach us.

Even in tragedy there is saleability. The floods in Kashmir have greater visibility than those in Assam.

But this is not just about the television channels; it is as much about us sitting on our couches demanding from every thing excitement, instant gratification and titillation. We are interested in the news not for what it conveys but for how it does so — the more exciting, the more shocking, the better. We will complain that an anchor is noisy, jingoistic and violent; yet night after night at 10.00 p.m. we will watch ‘him’ hyper-ventilate from his vantage position. Every TV station knows this and plays to this reality; it is only in degrees that they differ.

Are television channels responding to our shallowness or is it the other way around? Does that really matter; we are all the same, aren’t we?

We are all consumers; news consumption is not any different from buying a Coke to satisfy our craving for sugar and caffeine. Just like the anchor, we too shift gears for every story, not knowing what we felt for the story that just passed.

But unlike make-believe entertainment, here the news channel has only so much control over what is fed to us. Depending on what or who would catch our eyeballs for the longest, the time allocation is varied, but in essence keeping to a show of variety. We ‘news junkies’ are exactly that — junkies. We don’t know why we watch news, but delude ourselves that we are more in touch with the world and that we do care.

We are addicts to sensation. That is what we are, addicts, hooked to our daily joint — news.

Originally written for The Hindu

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