Op-Ed: Dear TV Channels, Your Twin City Bias Is Showing!

Last week, the appointment of senior IPS officer Satyajit Mohanty as the Commissioner of Twin City police replacing YB Khurania made big news in the local media. As soon as the announcement was officially made, it was splashed across TV channels as ‘Big Breaking’/’Breaking News’. All TV channels went live when the new police chief was given the ceremonial welcome and Khurania handed over charge to the new incumbent. This was followed by the customary interviews with both the outgoing and incoming police chiefs, the former being asked about the ‘achievements’ during his tenure and the latter about his ‘challenges’ and ‘priorities’. More or less the same routine was followed by newspapers except for the ‘Breaking News’ and live coverage bits.

None of this was a surprise. In fact, it followed a template that has been set in stone over the years. But it served to highlight an issue that has been talked about in street corners across the state but seldom discussed in the media: the all too visible bias for the capital city or the place of broadcast/publication in news coverage in the mainstream media, especially TV. [The bias is less pronounced in case of newspapers after regional editions came into being. Satellite television, in contrast, is not amenable to camouflaging this bias due to its very nature.]

A viewer/reader in, say, Nabarangpur or Sundargarh, will be fully justified in feeling aggrieved by the disproportionate coverage that Bhubaneswar/Cuttack receive at the expense of news from his/her district. Had it been a new Director General of Police (DGP) taking over, it would have been justified since a DGP heads the police force of the entire state. But a man in the districts is entitled to see the change of guard in the Commissionerate Police as not much different from a new Superintendent of Police (SP) taking over in a district.

This bias is not limited to coverage of official functions; it extends to every sphere of news coverage. An accident in the Twin City, for example, receives greater coverage in the media than a much more severe accident in the districts, even when the casualties are greater in case of the latter. Incessant rains last month inundated large swathes of the state. But the problems in the interiors never received the kind of saturation coverage that the water-logging in the Twin City did. A demonstration or a rally has to be held in Bhubaneswar to get due coverage in the media even if the issue pertains to the districts and has nothing to do with the capital city.

Part of the reason for this built-in bias of the media, of course, is the viewership/readership pattern. With a population of over one million, Bhubaneswar obviously has more viewers/readers than any other place in the state. It is thus not very unusual when the media lays greater emphasis on events in the capital city than those in the districts. The other major reason for this phenomenon is the skewed distribution of resources, both human and infrastructural, between Bhubaneswar and smaller towns. TV channels/newspapers, a majority of which are broadcast/published from the capital city, have whole armies of reporters deployed on the ground covering all happenings in the Twin City; politics, sports, culture, fashion/trends and so on. The Outdoor Broadcast (OB)/Direct Satellite News Gathering (DSNG) vans that a channel has are invariably stationed in Bhubaneswar, ready to be deployed at a moment’s notice when an event in the city or its vicinity needs to be covered live.

Most districts, in contrast, have to make do with just one reporter – or two at the most – covering everything from politics to economics and from events to entertainment. The reporter in the district has the luxury of using an OB/DSNG van only when something major – like the mowing down of five school children near Bhadrak recently – happens in his area. Forget OB/DSNG vans; most district reporters don’t even have four-wheelers for movement and have to manage with their bikes. Some channels don’t bother appointing camerapersons and expect the reporter to double up as one instead. Uplinking the visuals presents its own challenge. Reporters in the districts are paid a pittance compared to what their counterparts in Bhubaneswar/Cuttack get. Little surprise then that news from Bhubaneswar/Cuttack gets a disproportionate share of coverage in virtually every bulletin on every channel. All this is, of course, part of the cost-cutting measures of channels because deploying the same amount of resources in the districts would require huge investments, something that no channel is prepared to do.

The uneven distribution of resources is not peculiar to Odisha though. It is part of an all-India phenomenon that has seen most ‘national’ channels shutting down their bureaus in the states, including Odisha. They would rather use visuals and text provided by TV news agencies like ANI rather than appoint or send a reporter for coverage from the ground. In a role reversal of what we see in Odisha, some national channels only have camerapersons, who are expected to double as reporters, in the states!

Channel owners may think that they can carry on with their capital-centric coverage till eternity. But the anger and resentment of the viewer based in places other than the Twin City is bound to blow up on their faces at some point. They must initiate efforts to correct this imbalance now or risk losing their statewide viewership in future.

(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are author’s own and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or views. OTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same)