Monday, December 17, 2012

NRIs: Above scrutiny by everyone, including the Media

It’s the season for getting hitched. The number of invitations I have received to weddings and engagements of friends in the last two months far exceeds what I have heard of in the last two years. Hardly surprising, one can say, considering winter is usually the preferred time for such activities in India. Neither is it surprising to see that many of these friends are NRI men marrying Indian women (arranged by parents, of course).

What is surprising is the extent to which everyone (including the society watchman) will go to keep the NRIs in good humor. The house is spruced up to a point that it resembles a poor cousin of the 2 bed room apartment in Houston (referred to as “big house”). The 12 year old scooter is hidden away and the equally old car is given for urgent servicing (“make sure it works for 2 weeks”, is what people like my father would usually tell the mechanic). The kitchen is cleaned and fridge stocked to the brim to ensure the poor child (ahem, the NRI himself) is fed well, even as you know that he/she has been eating better quality/ variety of food overseas.

Toiler paper makes its debut on the shopping list and so does bottled water and hand sanitizer. Mothers learn to understand the meaning of “cookie” so that they can thrust the Marie biscuit on cue and fathers will usually talk less. (Better than getting your ego shattered because you displayed ignorance). The watchman and maids get tipped by the NRI if they as much say hello.

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If the NRI failed, it must be the fault of the place he lives in. After all how can an Indian be held guilty for wrongdoing? We are morally good people.

It is no surprise that the common man’s sentiments are reflected by the media as well. Mainstream media’s treatment of NRI issues is often one-sided, portraying them in sympathetic light, while conveniently masking flaws. In short, the NRI is above scrutiny in the media. My piece for the Hoot deliberates on this through three well known examples. The text is reproduced below.

Recently, around 45,000 illegal immigrants with Indian citizenship staying in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) were asked to leave the country or regularize their visas within two months. World over, this would be considered the right thing to do. But not so by the Indian media that was quick to report the plight of such immigrants and the measures taken by the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs.

An article by FirstPost (and many other publications), originally sourced from the PTI, seems to make it clear that illegal immigrants enjoy bargaining rights. The letter written by Mr. Vayalar Ravi, Minister of Overseas Indian Affairs, to various authorities in the UAE is quoted, asking the authorities to pay for the air tickets of those immigrants who are unable to afford them. Why should such a request be made in the first place? Rich or poor, everyone is aware of their visa status and when it is due for renewal. In most cases, the over staying (for several months at that) seems to be deliberate, as the report mentions past cases of similar amnesty programmes that helped 3.4 Lakh illegal immigrants in 2007, another 3 Lakh in 2002 and around 2 Lakh in 1996. Clearly routine over staying followed by intervention by the Ministry of External / Overseas Indian Affairs seems to be the norm. No mainstream Indian media discussed this point.

The Gulf News highlighted this in a report mentioning a 62 year old Pakistani who had over stayed for 10 months because he claimed he was involved in a court case relating to a bank loan. Another report by the same publication indicated that people overstayed because they liked the country and felt it offered better prospects for them. It also underlined how people waited for such amnesty drives in order to not pay the large overstaying fees. While none of these stories have quoted Indians, the sentiments of our brethren cannot be very different.

Another instance of the media keeping mum is in the child abuse case in Norway involving a couple from Andhra Pradesh. The couple has been charged with ‘gross and repeated mistreatment and abuse’ of their seven year old son and sentenced to a jail term. Yet, India media chose to highlight the shock faced by the family’s relatives in Hyderabad upon hearing this news. NDTV specifically mentioned how both grandparents of the child fell ill, and one had to be hospitalized, upon hearing the news of the sentence. The report further tried to evoke sympathy be saying the couple’s second child, a two year old, was missing his mother very much. The report concluded by questioning the nature of care the children would get now with their parents away? But what do the relatives think of the abuse of the child? Are they not shocked at the treatment meted out to him? The report conveniently fails to discuss this.

The Economic Times towed a similar line by mentioning how the seven year old was suffering from a psychological condition that could get worse if he was away from the parents. It also mentioned how the child’s health had deteriorated due to poor eating habits in the absence of his parents. No where did the report ask the doctors quoted as to how the child could cope with the situation, considering reversing/ reducing the parents’ sentence term was likely to be a lengthy process? It is hard to believe that the future is so bleak for a child who has escaped mistreatment in the form of body burns and beating with hot, pointed metallic objects.

Quick on the heels of this, were a set of reports from various publications that mentioned the Andhra Pradesh State Human Rights Commission directing the State government to put out a petition to release the couple. No where does the report mention whether such a petition was justified and whether it would get any results. Talking to a lawyer might have helped give better insights to the legalities of the case and possible recourse. The Times of India was the only publication that put out a story about how counseling could help parents and children improve their relationship. It also highlighted the cultural differences in Indian and Norwegian parenting that could result in such incidents.

The third example of covering NRIs in sympathetic light is the Norway custody case over the Bhattacharya children. When the children were taken away by foster care, media reports said that it was because they were fed by hand (a common Indian practice, but supposedly uncommon for Norwegian authorities). Later it was reported that the mother of the children was suffering from some mental ailment and was dubbed unsuitable to care for the children. Next, it was reported that the couple in question were seeking divorce over a matter of domestic violence. Eventually the children were handed over to the paternal uncle with visitation rights by the mother. All through the reporting, the media seemed to sympathize with one or the other parties involved – the children, the mother or the uncle. It also reported potshots being taken by each side on the other to win the custody of the children. Should the media have at all covered this issue once the Norwegian courts had reached a settlement? I don’t think so because what is emerging now is just personal bad mouthing.

The nature of issues faced by Indian immigrants in other countries may be complex. But that should not deter journalists from pursuing all sides to a story, even if that means taking an unsympathetic tone towards immigrants. Immigrants usually are aware of their status in these countries and should take the efforts to be equally aware of local laws. Asking the Indian government to intervene, as has been the case in many of these issues, dilutes the diplomatic status we enjoy with these countries for greater economic relations and reports should point this out.

Examples of such reporting are far and few. One such instance is the work done by Times of India in covering the Savita Halappanavar death case. It not only highlighted the details of the complicated medical matter but also how termination of pregnancy was tough not only in Ireland but many other countries. It’s editorial also noted out how the issue was being played out as India vs Ireland and recommended against it.

The next time you meet an NRI, do everyone a favor and behave normally. I will, and hopefully without offending my friends.

Monday, November 26, 2012


A few weeks ago I attended a child’s birthday party. I found my eyeballs accosted by several brands, starting with Disney. The child was fan of the Disney film Cars and according to his parents, wore only clothes branded with images from the movie. “Even his underwear is not spared,” said the father sighing to himself. I was not surprised considering the birthday cake, napkins, paper plates, plastic cups, return gift wrappers and some of the balloons were all “Cars” branded. Many other children in the party had similar preferences – Barbie, Little Mermaid, Dora, some Japanese Manga-like characters many more I was unfamiliar with.

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While I was assimilating this information, I looked around to see if there were other brands on display. Sure enough, I spotted the child’s parents, like many others, sporting clothes from a leading sportswear brand. The men in the party almost unanimously sported a Polo Tee. The women were seen comparing bags and shoes, admiring each others’ clothes, picking on food, and discussing why a certain brand of olive oil was better than the others in the market.

The irony was not lost on me.

Why complain about a brand obsessed child when adults are no different? Why give in to the child’s demands, when you supposedly feel otherwise? Is it because we find it hard to practice what we would preach about? Or is it just fashionable to complain?

As the evening progressed, I heard some parents say they were “helpless” in controlling their child’s desire for branded things. Is this the same “helplessness” that we are confronted with when we overspend on our credit cards and blame the shop’s display for luring us and manipulating our weakness?

Why not just admit it is convenient to buy your peace at home by giving the little devils what they need? Naah. That will be betraying the Cult of Super Honest Parents. How about saying you want your child to be an all-rounder and hence the exposure to various brands? Hmm. That will betray the Society of Parents Wanting Normal Kids (Of course, bizarre is the new normal). What about – I have some money to spare and don’t mind indulging the child? Huh! You know how the Hate Vijay Mallya Camp will react to that. (On the other hand the trustees of Being Sid and Loving It might extend an invitation to your child).

The adult ability to be influenced by peer pressure far exceeds that of a child. Maybe it is time to simply say “Well, blame me”.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

In defence of Siddhartha Mallya

I read an interesting piece in the Economic Times yesterday figuring out if Siddhartha Mallya was just a lucky inheritor or whether he really had what it took to run a business. The sole reason for this quest seems to be Mallya Jr.’s activity on social media. Many people including yours truly have shuddered reading his tweets about playing volleyball with bikini clad models on the sets of the Kingfisher Calendar shoot, when around 4,000 employees of Kingfisher Airlines haven’t got their salaries for the last seven months.

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What surprises me however, is that people who do not pay their domestic help on time and engage on social media pursuits for at least 3 hours in a working day have problems with Mallya Jr.’s behavior. (I know this is not entirely an accurate correlation. Mallya Jr. has little or nothing to do with the airline, except that it was launched on his birthday seven years ago.) Would it help if one did not know how he was spending his time? Would it help if he just became incommunicado like his father?
A decade ago, when social media use was not as compulsively used as it is now, many crooks just vamoosed over night. That included infamous chit fund owners, fly by night operators who made their money duping clients based on false stock market promises, politicians who had jumped camp, couples who had eloped etc. It was a while before they resurfaced in a new avatar and most people believed these folks had changed for the better. And that time spent incommunicado was actually time spent repenting their deeds. How terribly wrong these assumptions turned out to be.

What Mallya Jr. is doing is living his life – like he always has. Somehow it was ok watching him go from fat to fab, coochie-cooing with former girlfriend Deepika Padukone at the IPL, or seeing him make a mean cocktail on Simi Garewal’s show India’s Most Desirable – even as the airline wasn’t at the pink of its health then. He seems to seek no greater publicity now than what he sought then. He tweeted as much about his observations on life as he does now. Women, nightlife, entertainment, politics and London continue to be a part of his social media life. I’d say the man has at least remained consistent and transparent about his doings!

It has been made amply clear that Kingfisher Airlines is faced with bankruptcy, not the Mallyas’ personal fortune or for that matter any of their other businesses. Technically, the Mallyas do not have an obligation to pay anyone in their present condition. Morally, they might. But since when did we start caring about morality among the rich and powerful?

Update: Apparently, Siddhartha has stopped tweeting his observations on life. Does that now make him a better businessman?

Dislaimer: I have never had any professional or personal interactions with Kingfisher Airlines or the Mallya family. I do not own any stock in any of the companies floated by the Mallya family. I am as much of a spectator on this issue as most readers would be.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Should media do more of its own investigations?

My recent visit to google news revealed yet another scam, this time in my home state of Tamil Nadu - Granite scam. The issue made me think about what our society has evolved into. Research shows that over 80 scams came to light in the last two years - most of them revealed with the help of whistleblowers. I wrote a piece on how this impacts journalism and society at large. It was published by the The Hoot. I am reproducing it here for your convenience. I look forward to your comments.

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In the last one year, India has seen several scams – Coal gate (over misallocation of coal blocks), NRHM land scam (Uttar Pradesh), Toilet scam (All India), Irrigation scam (Maharashtra), mining scam (Goa) and the most recent being the granite scam (Tamil Nadu). Popular media has broken these stories primarily based on whistleblower information and done a fair bit of reporting on developments around them. What the media has not done is help detect these scams in advance before they ballooned into several thousand crores, denting the economy. This reflects the state of investigative journalism in the country and the unwillingness of leading media houses to encourage such stories.

In the recent past only a handful of scams have truly been unearthed by the media – the 2G scam involving Nira Radia, some journalists and former Ministers Kanimozhi and A. Raja (broken by Open Magazine), ISRO – Devas scam (The Hindu), Defence Equipment procurement scam (The Week) and Adarsh Housing society scam (broken by Indian Express in 2003, with little follow up until 2010 though). This comprises only four of the 80 plus major scams that have been reported by the media since 2010. (The list referred to here is by no means exhaustive; it points to scam stories that most leading media houses carried). The rest were revealed by whistleblowers (whatever their reasons) and reported by the media. This is unlike the past where large corruption was often exposed by the media taking the lead. The Securities scam 1992 (unearthed by Sucheta Dalal, then with Times of India), the 2004 expose showing the involvement of key BJP, VHP and Bajrang Dal leaders in the Godhra riots, cash for votes scam 2008 and the bribery and corruption in the Ministry of Defense (both unearthed by Tehelha magazine) are some popular stories that were carried by all media outlets. Such caliber of journalism made the media reprise its role as watchdogs of society, and made the establishment wary.

Today, however, such journalism has been more or less relegated to niche publications, with popular media by and large relying on third parties to unearth scandals. This needs to change and leading media organizations should take their role of watchdogs seriously and encourage investigative journalism.

Investigative journalism has one objective – discovery of truth. While this should form the core of journalism itself, it seldom does. Most media organizations and reporters are happy merely reporting what they see as long as there are some facts and figures backing their reports. Few bother questioning these facts and figures at first glance or go beyond them to see if something is amiss. This is why Indian media in recent times has relied on whistleblower sources to detect most scams. Over time, such reporting has made even journalists complacent, where one is merely interested in getting the story aired/ published “first”, before the rest of the gang catches up. Not only does this produce shallow content where the journalist merely reproduces the whistleblower’s version of the story followed by versions of other sources, it takes focus away from the larger issue thus defeating the purpose of such an expose’.

Take the case of the irrigation scam. Times of India, cleverly claimed that they had unearthed the scam over a period of six months by showing various seemingly disjointed reports that they had published over the last six months. Two reports in April 2012 focused on the Balganga and Kondhane dam project costs being hiked by over 100 percent and 500 percent respectively. A subsequent report in June said that one of contracts had been terminated, but provided no other information. Four months later in August the newspaper published a story on why these costs were hiked. While this qualifies for an expose’ on the health of specific projects, by no means does the report indicate a wider scam in the making.

Further, when Times of India did break the irrigation scam story it quoted sources who not only said the state had spent Rs 70,000 crore in irrigation projects, but also shared various other information that the journalist should have ideally researched on. The facts quoted in the report were attributed to the Maharashtra Economy Survey Report and the Central Water Commission. Surprisingly, both these reports are released every year and copies of reports dating as far back as 2006-2007 are available on their respective websites. Why is it that the newspaper waited this long to expose the scam, considering the dam project costs were hiked frequently? Is it because a hike of say 20% cannot be considered important enough to report, vis’-a-vis’ a hike of say 150%? Why did the reporter not go beyond investigating three irrigation projects in Maharastra, when there was data available to indicate that the health of other projects could be no better?

Had the reporter on this beat noticed and questioned these issues earlier, the scam could have been nipped in the bud. It may not have got the required level of attention on front page but the lives of people affected could have been improved.

Perhaps this is the reason why the toilet scam received step brotherly treatment from media houses. News broke on April 18th,2012 when Telegraph broke the story of disparity in figures of the Union Rural Development Ministry and the Census pertaining to the number of latrines built. A gap of 3.5 crore latrines was indicated. Despite the first mover advantage, the newspaper stayed away from doing any follow up stories that could give a more definite shape to this scam. Times of India followed it up a week later putting a figure of Rs 2,900 crore as the value of the scam in Uttar Pradesh where most toilets had gone missing. Beyond that the report did not probe the reasons for such a scam, nor did it mention the contractors responsible for these latrines or why such data was over reported. The next story on August 16th, was generic in nature and reported that gram Panchayats would be held responsible for ensuring that requisite number of toilets were built in their respective jurisdictions. Where is the investigation in any of these reports? At best, all these stories are examples of clever statistic-play and numeric calculations.

The most recent granite scam in August this year, was revealed when former district collector of Madurai U. Sagayam’s letter to the Principal Secretary of the State Industries Department was leaked. The letter alleged a loss of around Rs 16,000 crore to the state exchequer due to illegal mining along with suggestions of how the scam was being perpetrated. Considering the amount of information already available on the case, most newspapers seem to have taken a stand of merely reporting developments. A report in the Frontline summed up the situation well. It says “The issue [of illegal mining] has for long been highlighted by environmentalists, social activists, functionaries of non-governmental organisations and leaders of Left parties. Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa, while campaigning for the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) during the Assembly elections last year, referred to the revenue loss suffered by the State owing to illegal granite quarrying.” The piece indicates that the government chose not to act on this issue until the letter found its way into the public domain. Why did newspapers too remain silent, if information on illegal mining was already available? Could their expose’ on the issue not spur the government into action much earlier?

A good case in point is The Week’s investigative report on the aftermath of the Rs 35,000 crore Goa mining scam (originally exposed by FirstPost). The report details how the region’s ecological balance has been disturbed due to mining, severely impacting agriculture and economy in those regions. It also provides information on the mining scam which was hitherto unreported, such as who was responsible for the mining activity, the modus operandi and tell tale signs that authorities chose to ignore. However, it is seldom that one sees leading media organizations carrying a blend of investigative and popular news stories.

Niche publications like Tehelka (which perhaps pioneered sting operations and revived the culture of investigative journalism in India), Open Magazine and FirstPost still manage to focus on investigative stories, no matter how small or large the scale of wrongdoing. Open recently exposed a smuggling and sex racket involving Uzbeki women and Indian customs officials where an estimated Rs 5 Crore was paid in bribe money to evade duty of around Rs 50 crore. FirstPost exposed the Goa mining scam.

Tehelka recently exposed the PDS food grain scam in UP (estimated to be worth Rs 2 Lakh crore) involving Food and Supplies Minister Raja Bhaiya. The Minister built a personal fortune of Rs 100 crore in four years stealing and diverting food grain meant for the poor, during his former term as Food Minister. It also published a shocking expose of the attitude of senior policemen in the NCR-Delhi region (which incidentally has reported the highest number of rape cases) towards rape. The piece showed apathy, prejudice and misogynist attitude towards women who filed rape cases, and indicated how they never believed rape could occur because “the woman is at fault” and “asked for it”. The Raman Singh expose highlighting corruption, nepotism and questionable business dealings in Chhattisgarh , was yet another investigation by Tehelka.

Magazines like the Outlook also come up with investigative stories occasionally. The publication unearthed the Rs 2500 crore rice scam in 2010 based on a RTI query pertaining to ban of Basmati rice, which in reality was not enforced. It exposed the NTRO’s dubious practice of tapping the phones of senior political leaders. It also published a brief report indicating land grabbing by past President Pratibha Patil’s son in Amravati. Although brief, it indicated the questionable manner under which land was being allocated to an educational society managed by then President’s son on the mere basis of a letter to the government with little or no scrutiny. Rare for a TV channel in recent times, CNN-IBN exposed the Odisha mining scam valued at Rs 3 lakh crore.

What is perhaps worrying is that many of these stories were not carried by other media publications and hence did not get the required visibility for readers or got the government to act. In an age of scams, social media and citizen journalism, it would greatly benefit society at large if TRP/ readership focused media organizations can develop the stomach for investigative journalism. If nothing, it would cure them of the one issue they have perennially faced - surviving the clutter of news.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Does Corporate India understand social media? – Part 2

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My last blog post talked about this headline by contrasting the fundamental nature of business with that of social media. It attempted to explain why corporate India seemed to have several “misunderstandings” while dealing with people on social media. At the time, it seemed fair to assume that corporates did not completely understand these differences (given the maturity of social media networks in India) and plunged into this medium simply because it was touted at the next big thing or the competition was on it. However, a recent report by Gartner, could suggest otherwise.

Titled “The Consequences of Fake Fans, ‘Likes’, and Reviews on Social Networks”, the report predicts that by 2014, upto 15 percent of all reviews on social media will be fake and paid for by corporates. This could mean one of two things. That corporates fully understand the challenges in harnessing social media to their advantage and want to take shortcuts to meet their goals by seeking paid/ fake reviews. Or, that corporates continue to be ignorant of how this platform works and are trying to foist business models that have worked while dealing with mainstream media. (Paid placement of articles (infomercials) in mainstream media publications is common practice and is used by companies to launch high-involvement products as well to communicate crisis management and brand revitalization activities. Paid news recently created a controversy when it was discovered that journalists/ managements adopted unethical practices to pass of infomercials as news).

Either way, this could be harmful for brands.

At the core of this issue is the need to “get more” - of followers, space, mind share, downloads, conversations and everything else that is possibly quantifiable. But what does 10 million ‘likes’ on a corporate Facebook page indicate? Do people like the way the page looks? Do they like one or all the services/ products the company provides? Do they like other fans of the company page? One can never say because we are impulsive in our like or dislike of many things. To make matters worse social networking platforms are engineered to thrive on breadth and not depth of content. This means, the more ‘likes’ you have the more active you are perceived to be.

I am a vegetarian but like watching Masterchef Australia, (where most dishes are non-vegetarian) because of the show’s presentation. I may therefore ‘like’ the social media pages created by Masterchef Australia. Can Masterchef Australia sell me anything from their show? Except for aprons, maybe not. Can they engage with me by sharing some recipes? Unlikely, because their vegetarian recipes are bland to my taste buds. What kind of a fan does that make me? A pretty useless one.

Companies that genuinely want to engage on social media don’t like to be saddled with fans paying them lip service. They would rather have fewer fans engaging deeply and willing to collaborate with them on various aspects of their product/ service. Indian corporates must understand this. India has the world’s largest population and getting numbers (of people) to like/ dislike something has never been an issue. Whether it is world peace, municipality woes or Rajnikanth, Indians always have an opinion on everything under the sun. The tougher job for corporates is to figure out whose opinion is transient and whose isn’t. If companies stop chasing numbers and embrace engagement, customer advocacy will oust paid / fake reviews.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Does corporate India understand social media?

Here comes another corporate gaffe on social media. Volkswagen India posted an offensive tweet in reply to one if its followers’ comments and then promptly took it off without any apology. The company recently put an Ad in a newspaper with a motorized vibrator in the back page that went off automatically if one opened the newspaper. The vibrations were meant to inspire people to head to the Volkswagen showroom to check out the new range of Polo and Vento cars. Instead it elicited ridicule and embarrassment on twitter.

Some women followers of the brand on social media gently admonished it for a failed attempt to create a catchy campaign, not to mention the underlying sexual innuendo. The brand retorted by tweeting “Women would be dumb to call it a vibrator. Or maybe they do not understand real driving experience,” and set off heavy criticism including being labeled sexist.

It was only last week that social media in India ignited over Samsung leaving two Indian bloggers stranded in Germany, after they refused to succumb to threats by Samsung forcing them to promote their products at an event. Subsequently the company issued a hasty response blaming “miscommunication” for the incident.

These incidents prompt one to ask if corporates understand social media. It is most likely that they do not. This is because the fundamental principles of business and social media differ.

1. Control – Business and all business communication thrives on control by the management. When negotiating with business partners or clients, businesses often ensure that the terms are favorable to them first and then to the third parties. A similar degree of control is exercised in dealing with traditional media (eg: presenting an official version of a situation) and this is now extended to social media. Corporates see social media as yet another channel to increase their publicity. They expect corporate announcements and positive reactions to these announcements to float around on social media, not noises of protest or admonishment. Unfortunately social media thrives on self regulation or mere guidelines of regulation. Criticism is doubly quicker than praise. Those who take to social media, view it as a channel free of biases, unlike traditional media where there is still some influence of one’s media house or political leanings. It is na├»ve for companies to seek only public endorsement for their products/ services on social media.

2. Profit – The objective of most businesses is to make profits and rightly so. Without profit, there is no future. Employees can be laid off, research divisions can be dissolved, collaboration can be sacrificed, customer feedback can be ignored, and budgets can be cut to achieve the end objective - profit. In contrast, social media has one objective – engagement. There are no boundaries to define engagement and no limit on the number of metrics to measure it. There is no “point taken, now shut up” kind of control to exercise, whether 10 tweets criticize a company or 10,000 tweets do. The greater the public participation, greater the engagement. In that sense social media can be equated to a virtual mob. To influence the mob, companies have to be a part of the mob and gain trust. Making the mob do your bidding is a long way off.

3. Code of conduct – Businesses define and follow (at least on paper) a code of conduct to govern their relationships with employees, business partners and third parties. Any communication as part of this code is largely impersonal, even though the motivations for such communication are likely personal. Apologies and values often take a back seat in most corporate communications that tend to get defensive. Social media, on the other hand, is all about the individual – as personal as that can be. People faking their personalities are not taken to kindly on social media. People connect only with those they feel are genuine (with likes and dislikes) and not corporate mouthpieces. If one makes a mistake, one is expected to apologise and only then allowed to move on – just like in kindergarten. Not being sincere in one’s apology or being tolerant of others’ views, will earn corporates social media detention.

As more corporates take to social media marketing, they must realize the trade-offs that come with the medium. Else social media will soon turn into an anti-corporate channel for people to voice their criticism.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Do bloggers need a representative body?

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A couple of independent Indian bloggers were recently left stranded at an event in Berlin, after they refused to succumb to threats by Samsung forcing them to promote their products. The two bloggers were picked through a contest and were offered a chance to preview the latest Samsung gadgets at an international event and write an unbiased review. In return, Samsung offered to fly them to the event and pay for their hotel charges – much like a junket for journalists.

However, things went horribly wrong and upon landing the bloggers were asked to promote the product (they had to originally review) by wearing Samsung uniforms and standing in the company’s booth. Upon their refusal Samsung threatened to leave them stranded in Berlin and cancelled their return tickets as well as hotel stay. Luckily for the bloggers, another mobile phone company offered to help. This episode has shocked the blogging fraternity and they have reacted strongly to it. (More details pertaining to the issue can be read at this link.)

While the media has pitted this as a personal issue between the two bloggers and the corporation, the real problem lies deeper. This situation, to a large extent, can be attributed to the lack of formal structure of operations as well as the absence of blogger associations who can set some ground rules for independent bloggers. Blogs are largely seen as one’s personal space and views on a blog are usually biased to reflect that individual’s perspective. This makes the content less than credible to provide a holistic perspective of any issue for public consumption.

This perhaps explains the media’s general reluctance to reach out to bloggers to get perspectives for any story or syndicate any columns. Few media organizations, such as NDTV Profit, routinely feature bloggers for select programmes and seek their views on developing stories. CNN-IBN’s Citizen Journalist initiative, although asks people to share their stories, does not feature them regularly in its news segments. HT Mint too publishes blogger opinions, albeit selectively.

However, with the rise of social media as a channel to influence customers and prospects, many corporations are looking to build their online image - with a little help from influential bloggers. Thanks to the absence of any blogger guidelines (self imposed or otherwise), corporations and PR agencies are willing to pay bloggers in return for positive coverage. This makes bloggers easy baits for plugs and poses a threat to their independence.

A formal blogger community or association can significantly alter the public perception of independent bloggers enhancing their role in society. Bloggers can have three distinct benefits from such an entity.

1. Professionalism: Independent bloggers believe they write credible content on the issues they are passionate about. Mainstream media does not seem to think so. The gap lies in the fact that there are no guidelines governing how and what bloggers are encouraged to write about. Newspapers on the other hand have a detailed policy pertaining to what constitutes news, how it should be covered and what kind of opportunities a journalist must not seek. Additionally, sponsored stories are clearly mentioned so. A story in the Mint, highlighted this aspect while covering the Samsung incident. It stated the special conditions under which a junket is permissible and what dos and don’ts reporters of the paper must follow.

Similar to those lines, blogger associations can evolve a policy that sets certain benchmarks amongst its members. For example, the US-based Independent Theatre Bloggers Association clearly outlines that bloggers write about theatre productions of their choice without taking money or being prodded by agents with vested interests. Only the association deals with PR agencies and the press. Member bloggers are requested to inform the association in case any PR agent or journalist contacts them directly. That way the association is able to ensure that bloggers comply with the general ethos of the association.

2. Awareness and Effectiveness: Most bloggers are prolific writers but few seek inputs from other bloggers who do not share their perspectives on a subject. By and large most blog posts focus on “consensus of complementary ideas” and not “disagreement”. Further, bloggers do little research on similar topics in the public domain to quote the relevant material in their posts. The Samsung case exposed the naivete of the two bloggers who travelled to Berlin, without the knowledge that they would be asked to promote the product, especially, when there was sufficient public information on the Samsung programme in countries like the UK. An article in the Guardian details this paid promotional initiative to get bloggers to creatively talk about the latest Samsung products/ services. Had the Indian bloggers read this prior to their participation and reached out to some of the bloggers in other geographies, they could have had realistic expectations from their trip.

A formal association can expose bloggers to varied opinions and encourage them to seek effective dialogue with fellow members. The Indian website Indiblogger does a commendable job of this by asking members to review each others’ blog posts and share recommendations for improvement. It also regularly promotes contests on the site by informing bloggers in detail about what they should and should not do. These contests are judged by both members and the corporate sponsoring the contest to ensure impartiality. Further, any complaints such as non-receipt of gifts upon winning a contest or other promises not kept by corporate are promptly addressed by the administrators.

3. Legitimacy: For blogging to be seen as a powerful alternative voice of the people, it needs recognition from mainstream media. This recognition would come only if the fraternity is committed to operating procedures. An association can go beyond helping create operating procedures to supporting members against any attacks from third parties. In the Samsung case, one is not clear about the stand taken by Unleash the Phone, the website which one of the bloggers represented. Although the company issued a public apology, one is unsure of the other consequences that the bloggers might face (for dishonoring their commitment) including asking for payment of the one-way trip or withdrawal of any other perks which they may have enjoyed. In this situation, the bloggers would have to fight their own case, with little legal support from the organizations they represented.

An association that can back its members would come in useful in this situation as it would not only provide support but also any resources the members can use such as lawyers and other experts.

With the government banning social media sites, it is only a matter of time before powerful corporations can wield the same kind of power on independent bloggers who do not tow their line. Until such time that blogger associations come up, bloggers will have to do with a poorly crafted apologies claiming “miscommunication”.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Fat chance of success

If I go under the scalpel, I will get employed/ promoted. That is what many would be prompted to think when they read the latest piece of health news that appeared last week. Relating cosmetic and other physique improving surgery to better employment prospects looks more like a gimmick to attract readers than to responsibly report a trend.

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Health , a supplement of The Week magazine, carried a cover story on surgical makeovers and how they had boosted the careers of every person they interviewed. The piece interviewed professionals of all types – pilot, airhostess, lawyer, software engineer, businesswoman, and salesman - to capture the trend of people opting for all varieties of surgeries, even if they were not part of glamour driven industries. Some of the treatments mentioned include physique contouring, cosmetic surgery to alter facial features, breast and arms reduction surgery, gynaecomastia, high definition body sculpting for six-pack abs, rhinoplasty, liposuction, smile makeover, and teeth bleaching.

All those interviewed said the surgery boosted their careers. Really? How do we know for sure that the only reason they got a job or did better was solely because of their new look? What about other skills that are part of one’s job such as technical skills, good communication and general performance at work? None of this was discussed in the piece.

A plastic surgeon at a popular Delhi-based hospital was quoted saying that 60 percent of his patients underwent surgical procedures to improve their job prospects. To balance this opinion, the piece quoted just one cosmetic surgeon as saying there was no correlation between surgery and better job prospects. He added that surgery of any kind was risky and unless a medical condition warranted, one should stay away from such procedures. There was no information provided on what exactly happens as part of these surgeries, side effects and whether the results are permanent over a person’s lifetime.

What are readers more likely to believe? Reams of anecdotal evidence supplied by the people interviewed or two conflicting perspectives offered by specialists?

The media often highlights that only around 40 percent of our graduates and 25 percent of our post graduates are employable. Will they all get jobs, if they just look good?

The second piece published by the magazine in the same issue is more direct in its intention - to cause fear, anxiety, and depression among those seeking jobs or raises or promotions. Titled ‘Thin chance for the fat’, it briefly chronicles the experiences of four individuals who claimed to have lost jobs because they were obese. The piece quotes the CEO of a head hunting firm as saying “If you are obese, chances of getting a job of your choice is almost 100 per cent gone now as most companies don't recruit you instantly. Further, even if you are employed, in 50-60 per cent cases, the appraisals thereafter are not as good as the regular weight candidates'.” No clear evidence of such a case is presented in the entire story. This recruiter does not say if his clients specifically ask him to provide candidates who are not obese. Also no corporate view has been sought on this issue. The supporting research quoted by this piece does not have any figures pertaining to India.

While being obese is certainly not healthy, no where does the story attempt to realistically state what obese individuals cannot do that people of normal weight can. For example, are obese individuals slower in completing certain tasks? Or can normal weight people multi-task faster? What about those who are genetically predisposed to being large or are big boned? Many doctors agree that calculating the body mass index (BMI), a commonly used method to determine if one is obese, is not the most accurate method to determine fitness and health. How then can we determine one’s health?

Is this reflective of the employers’ bias towards those who are generally better looking, glib talkers and better networked? Indian society has been prejudiced and has discriminated against people based on their looks, caste, regional affinity and everything else apart from factors that really matter - talent, knowledge and ability to perform on the job. Thanks to such news, one can now rationalize discrimination and have employers justifying that they hired the average weight person because such a person would put less strain on the employee health insurance scheme, take up less space in the office elevator and eat less food at the cafeteria. After all these are business costs and a company has a right to limit its costs.

Strangely no piece talks about how corporates are largely to blame for the sedentary life style and lack of work-life balance that results in health issues. Most don’t encourage employees to take vacations or go home on time. Instead, the story highlights aspects like rise in corporate memberships at gyms for employees to get healthy. Is that the only way to lose weight? What about alternative forms of exercise such as yoga, jogging or free running? There is no mention of diet and nutrition either.

Other types of discrimination is also possible, if one were to read news reports of the rising number of eye lid surgeries performed in the North East so patients can look as “Aryan” as the rest of Indians. The story says children as young as 15 years are undergoing such surgeries to have a chance at a “normal college life” so they will not be addressed by derogatory terms like “chinki.” Nowhere does it talk about the dangers of such surgery or whether such an operation was sufficient to mask one’s identity. Those from the North East are recognizable also by their slim physiques, good fashion sense, polite manners and impeccable English. Will these not give- away their identities?

This issue is explored in an article by The Times of India where doctors urge patients to undergo counseling as part of planning for a cosmetic surgery procedure. The article quotes a plastic surgeon saying “People who want plastic surgery often blame their features for functional inadequacies, like a salesman claiming that his crooked nose affects his performance at work.” Such articles presenting the other side of surgeries, however, are far and few in the Indian media.

Trend reporting is much more than just talking about success stories. Reporters should strive to look deeper into the issues they are covering to see the bigger story. In my opinion, the bigger story here is not of the search for perfection by individuals but of the very real possibilities of using this perfection a tool to discriminate. Those without the means (or inclination) to afford such surgeries will stand to lose in this unfair battle. And the media would have a hand in promoting such a surgery driven lifestyle.

(I wrote this piece originally for The Hoot. You can read it here)

Monday, August 20, 2012

Media shuns responsibile reporting in NE exodus

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By harping on rumours, the media’s coverage of the recent exodus of people of North East Indian origin shows it had little intention to seek the truth.

For the last few days visuals of hordes of North Easterners jostling each other to get into trains at the Bangalore railway station have been repeatedly aired on several news channels. Last evening this story was catapulted to becoming national news and all news channels continued to show similar footage through the night extending into Friday morning. Words like rumour, danger, panic, attacks and uncertainty (and equivalents of these in every regional language) were used by reporters, anchors as well as tickers running on air. To someone who just tuned in to watch news, it would seem like the communities fleeing had been attacked by violent mobs and were running to save their lives.

This is just one example of the skewed coverage around this developing story. Subsequent TV news reports showed politicians assuring people of their safety, even as anchors and reporters continued to toe the “rumour” and “danger” lines, almost as if they wanted to maintain that the media’s stand on the issue was somehow different from the Ministers’. Zee News carefully clipped parts of certain speeches and chose to the keep the spotlight on its reporter who repeated the words “rumour” (Ahfaayein in Hindi), even as the screen juxta-positioned a stampede like situation at a train station.

Was such importance given to rumours because the media showed no intention to go looking for the truth?

NDTV at the end of its reports put out an appeal for calm, positioning it as ‘their view’ of the situation. In the appeal they blamed ‘extremists’ for fanning the fire of hatred. This is a speculation and contradicts their reportage which did not mention any source for these rumours apart from hearsay from fellow North Easterners. The word extremist in recent times has been associated with Muslims. Using such language is irresponsible, particularly when several Muslim leaders came out to extend their support towards the safety and security of North Easterners. Is the channel trying to rubbish this support?

CNN-IBN at the end of its reportage put out a set of questions. They included aspects on how to quell fear among the fleeing people, role of community leaders in doing this and whether mischief-makers were giving this situation a communal color. One would think these questions were relevant for the channel’s reporters to pursue and report about, but unfortunately these questions ended up as mere thoughts for the public to dwell on.

A Times NOW debate had Arnab Goswami questioning a panel on why there was no action taken against rumour-mongerers. Perhaps someone should have told him that no one has yet been identified as the source of starting these rumours. Asking endangered parties to stop warning their brethren about imminent danger (as communicated by the media), is not going to work. Ironically the debate was titled ‘Stop the rumour mongering’.

If the TV coverage fuelled panic, the print media decided to exercise restraint to the point that they barely scratched the surface of the tension brewing in the city.

The Hindu identified some instances of assault on North Easterners in some parts of Bangalore and provided an opportunity for the affected youth and the Karnataka Law Minister to interact. While the Minister urged the youth to file complaints, the youth refused saying they would not get any security upon filing complaints. This is representative of the perspectives held by the North Easterners. Instead of asking the Minister and perhaps the Police officials on how they attempted to tackle this notion and provide security, the paper chose to drop the issue. Was this just an attempt to expose yet another weakness of our law and order system?

The Hindustan Time detailed the measures that the Karnataka police intended to take such as intensified patrolling of areas populated by North Easterners and continuous interaction with them to get any leads for the future. However, it underscored the point that the Police would not act until someone filed a case of assault. To make this point clear, the report quotes the nodal officer appointed by the Karnataka police as saying no police intelligence was found on any attacks. Shouldn’t stray attacks, such as the one mentioned above, be considered by the police to initiate some kind of internal action so that such incidents don’t balloon into tragedies?

The Economic Times added a spare line in its report on the possible source of these fear-inducing SMSes, saying there could be multiple parties involved in creating this tensed atmosphere. However, no information on whether such SMSes were fake or real was revealed. This is crucial information. It should be noted that past bomb attacks in cities like Pune, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Mumbai and Delhi in India too resulted from SMSes and other clues from seemingly different groups with no common connect or motives. Post the bomb blasts, it was discovered that one or two groups claimed responsibility for the attacks. This could have spurred the Home Ministry to issue a ban on SMSes and MMSes later on Friday.

The Times of India in its brief editorial asked the police to act against those spreading rumours. Strangely, editorial read more like an appeal and seemed to indicate that the paper was clueless about what was happening. Surprisingly a blog by one the paper’s senior editors looks at the situation more meaningfully. She talks about ToI field reporters being aware of cases of random harassment against against North Easterners. “….being slapped, beaten up, verbal abuse, strangers barging into their homes and asking them to get out; landlords, fearing trouble, asking them to vacate their PGs etc…” the blog also mentions how the stabbing of a Tibetean student near Mysore was hushed up as a case of mistaken identity by the police. Such perspective, if carried by the main paper, could have helped readers.

Many reports such as those by The Hindu, The Deccan Chronicle, Rediff and The Hindustan Times mentioned the government’s intention to monitor social media sites to prevent any rumours from spreading through them. However, no reports clarified the action taken on prior allegations of social media being responsible for creating the current situation. Some such inflammatory videos continue to remain on YouTube such as this one by Al Jazeera titled Bodo Ethnic Cleansing in Assam that show people running helter skleter even as a burning tyre is hurled at them.

Considering the recent stand- off between the government and social media entities like Google, LinkedIn and others, over the issue of social media censorship, what can the government realistically do about such situations? Also how will they distinguish between fabricated and real life videos given the limited time to act?

A report by the First post indicated that rightwing supporters such as Tajinder Bagga and other were using social media to extend their support to the North East community in Bangalore – at the cost of sending inflammatory tweets such as “Fatwa issued by Local Muslims to North East Brother’s & Sister’s to leave Bangalore till 20 or ready for Riots”. How will the government deal with such people?

Also, it is common knowledge that the sheer size and scale of social media make it impossible for anyone to monitor. What specific steps would the government take in trying to accomplish this vigil? No details were provided.

By and large the media’s coverage of this issue has been very basic with various media establishments choosing to play safe. While it is commendable to disseminate timely information, reporters should also embark on fact finding to tie up the loose ends in their reports and provide more meaningful perspectives- something the bloggers seems to be doing a tad bit better.

(I wrote this piece for The Hoot. You can read it here also).

Friday, August 3, 2012

Power failure leads to reporting failure

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The sheer scale of the power failure in North India that extended to 20 states by Tuesday evening led to tons of news reports on the issue. Unfortunately, most of this coverage, while talking about macro issues in the sector, did not attempt to seek basic answers that the readers wanted at the time of the power failure – What caused this power failure? Who is responsible? What is being done to restore normalcy? Will we see more of this?

No English media editorial focused on this issue directly. Instead editorials galore talking about the need for grid discipline, strict penalty for non-compliance, power sector woes, need for a power sector watchdog and better infrastructure, who will bell the offending parties and how the grid survived for this long.

Now that power has been restored to most parts of North, East and North-East India, the media may perhaps think it is not relevant any more to dwell on these aspects. Nevertheless, it was a gaping hole, as readers missed some key answers.

1. The cause for the grid failure went unreported – Reports were at best speculative on why the power broke down. The Hindu promptly put out the news of the power blackout and conveniently mentioned that the then Power Minister Mr. Shinde did not want to comment on this issue. Many reports plugged in industry agenda about the “need for power reforms in the country.” A BBC report was the first to say that states could be drawing more power than usual from the grid. By Wednesday, while most papers seemed to agree that some form of over drawing resulted in the breakdown, a CNNI-IBN report said the Eastern grid was perhaps responsible for the breakdown, contradicting the assumption that the Northern grid was responsible for this situation.

A piece in the Economic Times attempted to provide some clarity by discussing what causes grid failure but went unnoticed due its poor placement in an obscure corner of the newspaper.

Experts, instead of explaining what could have cause power failure, were busy pushing the larger agenda of power sector reforms. A report in the Economic Times compiled the statements of various industry experts – most of them speaking about how states were getting greedy for more power and unwilling to pay the price for it.

The English news channels went on an over drive and the various panelists called on the shows to give their opinion seemed to have not gathered any facts on the case. “An accident,” “lack of grid discipline”, “the grid itself is technically unsound”,”over drawing of power” and ironically “not over drawing of power”, “excessive generation of power”, “negligence and oversight” and “gross mismanagement” were all given as reasons for the grid failure.

Is it not possible to look at electricity meters, gauges and other records of various power stations to figure out if over drawing was happening, as well as details pertaining to who was drawing more power and from which grid? While it is palpable that the culprits do not want to own up, why did the media have to shelter them by not asking this simple yet hard hitting question?

Times NOW on Tuesday night managed to get some figures indicating that Haryana withdrew 51% over the allocated quota just minutes before the grid failure. When confronted, the panelist representing the state, admitted to it thereby promptly ending the discussion. What was the objective of such a question, if there were no follow up questions? Other TV channels took this opportunity to host a name-calling slugfest where panelists openly blamed certain political parties and states for violating power withdrawing norms.

2. The corrective action taken by the Ministry to restore power was not reported – While print media reports eventually mentioned power being restored across most parts of the country, they did not mention how this was done or for how long such measures would hold.

Both questions are significant given the poor state of power sector infrastructure in the country, as was highlighted by almost all media reports subsequently. Except for a few reports on Wednesday morning, the media did not attempt to explain how hydel power was being used temporarily to kick start power in the grids. One report from the Economic Times mentioned hydel power from the Bhakra Nangal Dam project being used to restore power in Delhi, and another conflicting report from the Outlook mentioned Delhi being powered by hydel power from Bhutan via the Eastern grid.

Such conflicting coverage was seen throughout the two days the power failure existed on various aspects. One such instance was when NDTV 24/7 and Times NOW indicated that 35 – 75% of Delhi had its power restored by 9 pm on Tuesday whereas CNN-IBN rejected this claim and urged viewers to not rely on any such statements.

The net result of such coverage was that the readers/viewers was unclear if and when power would be restored and many vox-populi segments on TV said so.

3. No clarity on electricity consumption figures – This piece of information is vital to understand what could have caused a high demand for power on Monday. After all power grids don’t fail because of a marginal increase in power. Given the facts that some states constantly borrow power from other regional/state grids, only a substantially high power requirement could have resulted in power failure. This CNN-IBN report mentions that 3,000 Mega Watt (MW) was over drawn from the eastern grid, while the same report says that Delhi had a requirement of 4000MW on Monday when the power failed. Can the reader assume that the average daily power requirement in Delhi is typically only 1,000 MW then? Perhaps not, if one saw a Times of India report that mentioned power consumption in Delhi in peak summer to be 5,000 MW.

Further, the CNN IBN report mentions the average over drawing of electricity by various states. These numbers are suddenly mentioned not in MW but in “units”.

The next day, the Times of India gave a graphical interpretation of the situation indicating what was the average traffic on these grids on normal days versus on the day of the outage. Surprisingly, the traffic at the time of the trip across all the three grids was below the average withdrawl limits by these grids. How then could the grids trip? No explanation was provided.

Panelists on various TV new shows took the opportunity to throw more figures at viewers – 3 Lakh MW (the power shortage in the country), 50 Paise per unit (Proposed price of electricity in the 1994 sector reform Bill), Rs 2 Lakh crore (the deficit in various state power distribution companies), 10-15% (growth in power generation) and various grid frequency related figures.

What do these numbers mean to the average reader? Did they indicate that power restoration would at best be temporary?

The three aspects discussed above highlight that three of the “5Ws and 1H,” which form the basis of a news report, are missing – Who (who is responsible for the grid failure), Why (why did the failure occur) and How (how did the power failure spread). These questions remain unaddressed, although media outlets may see no point in revisiting them, given the power restoration.

Perhaps the government’s swift action to replace Mr. Shinde with Dr. Veerappa Moily, ensured that the media had a bigger (and more important) issue to report than just the power outage. The net result was that most reports on Tuesday evening were focused on 3 issues – Was Mr. Shinde capable of handling the Home Ministry?; Was the power crisis a reflection of a governance crisis?; and whether the Moily-led government would seriously take up power sector reforms.

On Wednesday all media outlets seem to have revisited their archives and mentioned the larger issues in the power sector and the need for power sector reforms. While it is commendable to look at broader issues and implications of the power failure, fundamental questions cannot go unaddressed.

(This piece was published in the The Hoot. You can read it here as well and share your comments.)

Monday, July 30, 2012

Tributes to Rajesh Khanna – Can the media please be truthful?

Last fortnight saw the death of a superstar. Rajesh Khanna perhaps took up as much newsprint and on air time in his death as he did in the prime of his acting career. Most reports and features were tributes to his great performances as an actor, and many took the liberty of gently admonishing today’s filmmakers by extolling the values of the 19070s era (romance and charm versus the ruthless violence shown in movies today).

Few reports mentioned his well publicized personal life – radically different from his on screen persona – or even made a mention of his failures (and there were many). Vir Sanghvi’s piece in The Outlook magazine briefly mentions his off-screen life but not without contrasting it with Amitabh Bachchan, then a fledgling actor who would go on to replace Khanna as the next super star. Gargi Parsai mentioned his desperation to seek media support as a politician. The one account that stands out is perhaps Sunil Sethi’s. This piece is significant because it makes Rajesh Khanna seem human. Without being judgmental, the piece talks about Khanna’s imperfections - in reel and real life – and gives us a small peek of the man and what stardom did to him.

A good tribute is one that stays truthful to the person and does not paint him as a perfect human being. No one is perfect. It is these deviations from perfection that shape personalities and make people memorable. Sadly, the Indian media has chosen to make a saint out of Mr. Khanna, like they often have of numerous other deceased celebrities. What is worse, they have done a tawdry job of it.

Most tributes to Rajesh Khanna have focused on his stardom, while conveniently ignoring his directors and playback singers, without who this feat would have been impossible. There are no nuggets of information on his acting methodology, his working style, his inspirations, or for that matter how he viewed his ascent into cinema – all of which fans would not disapprove of. Not only is this shallow writing, it also creates a perception that Khanna was perhaps as shallow in real life because reporters couldn’t seem to get any meaningful information out of him or his circle of friends. On closer observation, most of the features and reports look more like tributes to the 1970s, while using the superstar’s death as a mere peg.

To bring a dead person alive through a feature is not easy. Deifying them (by seeking ‘good will’ quotes from former colleagues) is not the answer.

(I wrote this piece for the Hoot Blog. You can read it here and share your comments.)

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Kaziranga: Minister washes hands off animal deaths

(Image Courtesy - AFP News)

By urging experts to help reduce animal deaths due to floods in Kaziranga national park, Assam, the state’s Forest Minister Rockybul Hussain seems to be washing his hands off the responsibility. What is more tragic is that the Minister has quoted facts of several past instances of animal deaths due to floods in the national park, as if this is a normal phenomena that doesn’t merit any cause for large scale rescue operations by the Forest Department officials.

Sunshine or hailstorm, the responsibility of wildlife welfare has always been with the Forest Department. The figures quoted by the Minister indicate that 559 animals were killed in the current floods, whereas 652 died in the 1998 floods. From an animal conservation perspective, a decrease in 100 casualties is no cause to rejoice, especially considering the widely publicized efforts by the Department to safeguard animals during natural calamities. Measures such as increased patrols, purchase of additional speedboats for patrol, creation of artificial highlands for shelter, setting up of corridors for the safe passage of animals across National Highway–37, have been highlighted time and again in many speeches by the Minister.

The media, perhaps caught up in covering the greater tragedy of human deaths and displacement, seems to have forgotten to even ask the Minister some fundamental questions - why was there no advance rescue programme to take the animals to shelter, considering some animals started mass migrating a few days prior to the floods? If natives could help animals into safe zones, why did the Forest Department not have the resources to do that? If poachers could kill animals as they scrambled for safety outside the national park, why did the Department not have any officials stationed nearby to prevent this?

The Planning Commission clearly mentions disaster management as an area assigned to the Forest and Environment Department. Under the Disaster Management Act 2005, the respective state Departments are expected to present a five year plan detailing approaches, strategy and investment priorities for disaster management. A comprehensive paper by a Conservator of Forests, Varanasi Circle, Uttar Pradesh, details what exactly zoological parks need to do to manage disasters better. Perhaps journalists need to read that document to know what questions need to be asked when covering disasters in national parks.

(I wrote this post originally for the Hoot Blog. Click here to read the post and comments)

Monday, July 2, 2012

Looking beyond celebrities in sports coverage

The media’s reportage of the drama involving the All India Tennis Association (AITA) and some prominent tennis players iterates two things – We are keen on reporting the doings of sports personalities with little analysis into the merit of carrying such news; and we don’t give much importance to reporting on sporting bodies and regulatory authorities.

When was the last time you read a news report on a sporting association or regulatory body in mainstream media? I can remember three instances in the last five years – The commonwealth games 2010 (pertaining to the various frauds that came to light), the IPL scam leading to Lalit Modi’s sacking and the fracas between actor Shah Rukh Khan and the Wankhede Stadium officials. 

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After NDTV reported suspicions of fraud in procurement for the Commonwealth Games 2010, the media chased this and other similar issues such as poor quality housing right up to the submission of the VK. Shunglu Committee report on the alleged frauds. What was sorely missed was timely information on how the CWG committee was formed, its functioning, progress of the projects (not just those which lagged in delivery), bidding process and other decision making by the executive committee. Such reporting could have spotted irregularities in various aspects early on and enabled course correction minus the hype.

Compare this with the coverage of the London Olympics, My previous post indicates why the Indian media needs to look at holistically covering sports.

The IPL scam was focused largely on the then proposed Kochi team due to the indirect involvement of personalities such as Shashi Tharoor. It was brushed off as a blot on the otherwise blemishless IPL. No details other than the amounts of money recovered by the Income Tax department or the fact that NRI money was used to fund the teams were disclosed. As for the Shah Rukh Khan episode at Wankhede, after much noise was made by both parties, no action was taken against the actor. The media promptly presented both sides of the story and washed its hand off. Has MCA never banned anyone else in their history? Why is there no CCTV footage of this incident? How often are MCA rules/ privileges abused (considering the numerous celebrities who camp in the stadium during the IPL)?

In a country where sports is seen as entertainment perhaps many would justify that it is fair to cover only sports celebrities, as one does of TV/film celebrities. But in a country where sports is increasingly seen as the only option for success for many talented youngsters from under developed states/ underprivileged families, it is imperative to cover developments around sporting bodies. For a country that is now serious (supposedly) about grooming its sporting talent beyond cricket, it is necessary that sporting bodies face such scrutiny from the media to improve their functioning, boost sources of funding, bring more knowledgeable persons on the board and have meaningful outcomes.

A case in point is the kind of people who are heading most sporting bodies in India. A majority of them have never played or refereed a sport or had any prior specialized experience of working with a professional sporting organization. Many are politicians who claim to “follow the sport”. I am sure the media can at the very least question some of the decisions they make and thrust them upon players.

I can think of three simple ways in which reporters can improve their coverage of sporting bodies

1. Write about less popular sports and their governing bodies – Aside from BCCI, most other sporting bodies are pretty open to meeting reporters and explaining how they function.
2. Speak to the non-celebrities who form the ecosystem of the sport – Ball boys, pitch makers, umpires/ referees, cleaning staff and committee members who are not prominent – all of them can give nuggets of information that can help you understand how these bodies function.
3. Read about sporting body operations in developed countries – The Western media does a better job of reporting on developments around sporting bodies. These include reporting on committee elections. This sporting body for instance has its annual report, strategy plan and operational plan on its website.

Can you think of how else sports reporters can cover sports bodies better?