Realism in sensationalism

BY MAYA RANGANATHAN| IN Media Practice | 21/01/2007
Media has to cloak its societal concern in sensationalism if sensationalizing matters will alone garner attention of those that matter.

Maya Ranganathan

The Shilpa Shetty saga that the Indian media has been reporting with great relish has set off yet another familiar round of discussions on whether the media must indeed get into overdrive over something as trivial as ¿alleged insults¿ in a reality show, the desirability of which as a form of entertainment is itself in question. But perhaps it points to the direction that media must take to bring into focus some real issues.

In the last week, single column reports in inside pages have been the mark of ¿staid and serious¿ newspapers, while splashes on page one with at least double column pictures of the beautiful Shilpa have characterised the less conservative, more liberal publications. Thus the Times of India that catapulted the news item to page 1, right top, even when other publications contained it in the bottom spreads on page 1, or in op-ed in four articles on its editorial page on Sunday (Jan 21, 2007) highlighted the incongruity of it all.

In a passionately argued article C P Surendran pointed out that Shilpa did not deserve our sympathy after all as putting up with allegedly racist remarks was a small price to pay for 350,000 pound sterlings; Bachi Karkaria flung it all into the ¿trash can of irrelevance¿, Chidanand Rajghatta brought to fore the intrinsic racism in Indians abroad while Shobhaa De argued Indians back home were no better.

Even if Times of India required more than three quarters of its edit page, ironically titled ¿All that matters¿, to enlighten its readers that the Shilpa saga  is much ado about nothing, in media-saturated India serious issues have come to need trivia to ride piggy back on to capture the attention of the people. Thus Shilpa saga has indeed helped drive home some facts that have been driven out of media discourse in recent times.

Any Indian who has lived in the west for a reasonable period of time will tell us that racism as an undercurrent is extant. It is seen when migrants adopt Anglican names to become more acceptable or to get jobs; it is seen when cashiers at supermarkets reserve their smiles for the whites and it is seen when the seat beside the coloured is the last to be taken in a tube!

But an India that is ¿poised¿ to take the giant leap to the next economic super power that is drunk on Indians making it to the top, has forgotten that the world has become flat in but a few areas. In practice, it still is hard for most of the average brown-skinned to rub shoulders with the white. It is precisely this that the Shilpa saga has brought to light.

Perhaps, a ¿celebrity¿ reality show, which contains neither celebrities nor realism, is no forum to discuss issues of racism. In an ideal state, the media must move out of people¿s bedrooms but in the era of 24x7 news and remote control media has to resort to the film actor, cricketer or politician to hold the attention of its viewer/reader whose attention has dwindles to just a few seconds. If flashing a murdered model¿s picture can secure justice, if making a spectacle out of a small boy¿s tragedy helps draw attention of the nation to the plight of lesser mortals, the Shilpa saga shows the way to create an awareness of the reality around us.  

After all, as Surendran pointed out, the Indian government that did not react to fear of migrants losing jobs in the UK reacted with alacrity to the slights to Shilpa while Indians all over rose in her support establishing that sensationalism in the age of commercialization is inevitable. If sensationalism in the media has come to stay, it is no reason for it to forfeit its fourth estate role. And there perhaps lies the way ahead for the media. Media has merely to cloak its societal concern in sensationalism. If sensationalizing matters will alone garner attention of those that matter, so be it.

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