20-26 March 2015 #750

If it bleeds, it still leads

Even in the age of citizen journalism, we can’t seem to cover the good news
Tsering Dolker Gurung
Are journalists supposed to give the public what it wants or what we think the public needs? Do we really know what the public wants?  

Just as tabloid journalism resorted to sensationalism, reporters in the age of citizen journalism are driven by the need to maximise hits. The quality of our online stories, our Tweets, our Instagram pictures, or videos on Vine are judged by their eye ball counts, retweets, mentions, shares, or feedbacks. Hence, the Youtube clip of a cute cat will always get more hits than a news piece on the constitutional deadlock.

Page views-led journalism today afflicts the mainstream media as well, since they compete with social networking sites on the Internet. While looking for the most dramatic version of a story, we often miss out on reporting new and original angles. We have written the story in our heads before going out in the field, and are reluctant to change our narrative even if the interviews deviate from our pre-determined angle. 

On 10 March, Tibetans all over the world marked Uprising Day. The date doesn’t mean much to local journalists, but correspondents and photojournalists for foreign news agencies in Kathmandu have marked it off in their calendars. And they were all there last Tuesday, keeping vigil with the riot police for any signs of a demonstration.

At a teashop in Ekantakuna a group of photographers from international news agencies sat waiting for something to happen. A photographer friend had been tipped off that a planned demonstration would break out any moment.

Images of scuffles, protestors being dragged into police vans and weeping refugees make for shots that can go international. The images are also the ones most likely to be picked up by an editor for the ‘photo of the day’ in some online site. None of the photographers were interested in a prayer ceremony being held at the community monastery down the road in memory of the 136 Tibetans who lost their lives in self-immolations.

The headline ‘Tibetans hold prayer ceremony for lost lives’ doesn’t stand a chance against ‘Tibetans in police custody after scuffles’. To the dismay of our photojournalist colleagues, there was no protest that day. “Things used to be so much fun before,” said a Kathmandu-based correspondent for an international news agency referring to the photogenic police vs monks confrontations on the streets of Kathmandu before the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

The only time it seems that the international wires are interested in reporting anything about Tibetans in Nepal is when they are staging an anti-China protest. It fits neatly in Western media’s narrative, but ignores the larger issues of the refugees, their lives and their truths. And the only time reporters can be seen chasing their Tibetan sources is on the Dalai Lama’s birthday or the anniversary of the Tibetan uprising, rest of the year as far as the western media is concerned, Nepal’s Tibetans don’t exist.

For example, they could cover the issue of undocumented Tibetan refugees born in Nepal? Or young Tibetans who have to leave for India because they are not entitled to any basic rights by law here? Or even of Tibetans who have stayed on in Nepal, prospered and contributed to Nepal’s economy.

Bad news makes great headlines, good news not so much. That also explains why a London-based newspaper will gladly publish an ‘expose’ on brick kilns employing children, but ignore the ones which have moved towards cleaner, energy-efficient technologies. Stories about migrant workers suffering in Gulf states are ubiquitous, but success stories about Nepalis who have returned and made a future for themselves? Nah, that’s not news.


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