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Saturday, May 24, 2008

The Great Indian Media Tamasha: Hindi News Channels and Fortune-Telling

Posted by: danish Ahmed 6:21 PM

Media's penchant for sensationalism is by no means a new phenomenon. Ever since tabloids were first published in the U.K. sensationalizing news events, publishing unverified reports, gossip columns and celebrity news, became a part of the media. However, they never posed a serious threat to mainstream newspaper because the readers were aware of the fact that tabloids had more to do with entertainment than serious journalism. Tabloid journalism never gained a similar foothold in India in the first fifty years of independence, conservative Indian society did not allow the same level of openness and irreverence that is so essential in tabloid journalism. Even in the post- liberalization era tabloid journalism was not successful except for national dailies publishing entertainment news and celebrity gossip in what is now popularly called page 3 news. However, with the advent of satellite television tabloid journalism in India has found a new face in Hindi and vernacular news media especially the visual media. It soon degenerated into something which is yet to be defined.

Before proceeding further, it would pertinent to mention here that I am not absolving English media channels from yellow journalism, but most would agree that their shortcomings are of different nature (not taking into account the journalistic standard of Headline Today, whose content often seem to be English translations of its Hindi language sister channel Aaj Tak) . Among others, TimesNow, a Times Group venture seem to be eyeing at the neocon segment, going by the way it covers issues. At this point I must say that watching its star host Arnab Goswami, does seem entertaining at times. Seems, the poor guy cannot keep his emotions outside the newsdesk. His mannerism, which can be called arnabism, includes talking more than all the guests combined and a self-righteous rage which often take debates far out of context. 

But the damage that Hindi news channels seem to inflict is far mpre dangerous than "arnabism" or any other ism, the former attack  rationality and scientific thought which can be disastrous for the Indian society in the future. In my previous post I wrote on the declining standards of the Hindi news channels, now I intend to elaborate on certain aspects of the issue that I had deliberately omitted for the sake of brevity.

In this post I will write on the growing and potentially harmful trend in the Indian media is glamorization of supernaturalism and occult. The line demarcating superstition from supernaturalism is too fine, if any group of professionals should stay away from this realm then it is undoubtedly the group of tabloid journalists. Predictions based on Sun Signs and Moon Signs are a regular feature in tabloids world over but Indian news channels have taken this trend to a new level. Most channels now feature programs that claim to predict the future based on astrology, numerology, tarot card reading, cartomancy and crystallomancy. The latest addition to the list of occultist disciplines glamorized by the media is the study of mobile phone ringtones' influence in daily lives of the owners (I call it phonomancy). This is not a joke or a spoof, I did come across one program in a news channel last week. If the "experts" are to be believed, religious ringtones influence the cell phone owner's fortunes very much like gem-stones and amulets are supposed to do. Like most occultist devices, these religious ringtones are supposed to impart luck on the owner but before that, an expert in this area should be consulted to find out which particular religious ringtone is compatible with one's zodiac sign. I must confess that this one is one of the best instances of ingenuity, innovation and marketing strategy that I have come across in recent times. This method of fortune-telling is of recent origin and yet to catch up with the TV audience but the more popular format across news channels comprises of making fortune-telling programs based on astrology, numerology and tarot card reading. In these programs too the use of colors and graphics is deliberately loud and grotesque.


If astrology, numerology and other occultist disciplines qualify as sciences or not has been subject of many debates, I do not intend to start another one. But even those who believe astrology to be a science often argue that tabloid columns on astrological prediction harm the discipline's reputation. Indeed, if astrologers on TV and newspapers are to be believed the entire global population's future can be predicted with 12 sets of predictions! Getting a detailed and individual prediction from an astrologer is understandable but a generic horoscope-based predictions and the manner of its presentation one comes across in Hindi and vernacular news channels encourage superstition. The responsibility of news agencies is to collect only verifiable information and present it to readers. A little amount of irreverent and spiced up news item is quite palatable but presenting unverifiable information amounts to fraud.


In the same manner, programs on supernatural events are reconstructed and dramatized more to provide cheap thrills than provide explanations for the anomalies. Informative programmes on supernatural beings with grotesque imagery, over-dramatization and special effects taken straight from C-grade Hindi horror movies are a regular feature on all leading Hindi news channel. These programmes usually try to balance their views out by adding a hint of rationalism before ending but the nature of earlier misinformation is so profoundly grotesque that it makes a much larger impression on the psyche, especially that of a child.

India is being increasingly seen by the rest of the world as a rapidly developing powerhouse of science and technology but most of the popular news channels not only ignore the country’s scientific achievement but also reinforce superstition and regressive mindset. For instance, the recent successful launch of PSLV hardly got any coverage when compared to exclusive programmes on fortune-telling methods. It goes without saying that by glamorizing fortune-telling, occult and superstition these news agencies are in reality doing a great disservice to the nation and are also shirking a fundamental duty incorporated in the Constitution of India which lays down “developing scientific temper” as a fundamental duty of every Indian citizen.

(h) to develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform;
( Part IVA, Fundamental Duties: Indian Constitution)

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