Interview by Sharonee Dasgupta
Sharonee Dasgupta: The book starts from the question trying to understand why some news is permanently carved in people’s minds, whereas most of it is forgotten. What are your thoughts on this?
Ratan Kumar Roy: Since its inception, the media has communicated ideologies and ideas. For example, immunization in the South Asian context, for which the broadcasting media was used widely. Some slogans became so popular that people still remember them even though it has not been in circulation for decades. Such as, for Tuberculosis treatment awareness building TVC, a catchy Bengali slogan was used: “Jokkha Hole Rokkha Nai, Ei Kothar Bhitti Nai” means “It is baseless that you won’t survive if affected by Tuberculosis”. This is one way of looking at it that some news continues to remain in viewers’ memory.
But a more in-depth engagement with viewers helps us to understand that there is a collective effort to make a particular news story popular. For instance, the story about a teenage girl Oishee Rahman who killed her parents became sensational. Still people bring this reference while talking about the adverse effects of modernization among the new generation. Viewers who remember and discuss Oishee do not necessarily keep up with the case and related news stories, but they continue to remember the story itself. This made me interested to explore what people do with news rather than focusing on what news does to people. This may allow us to understand media culture beyond a power-impact formula. A power-hegemony framework of studying audiences necessarily leads one to see the viewers as duped and helpless. But we must remember that the impact is seldom one way. And more importantly we should pay attention to the meaning making process where the true construction of meaning is a comprehensive process and consequence of the collective actions by the media professionals.
In addressing the question of remembering some news and forgetting the rest, I bring a media practices approach, instead of going into memory and psychology. What people remember and what they forget depends a lot on their socio-cultural context, including their taste and preferences. The influence of consuming news content, reflecting upon, remembering and forgetting depends on the socioeconomic backgrounds of the viewers. A media practices approach enables us to fathom the complex set of practices within the TV news culture where we move beyond the linear progression of production-circulation-reception and discover the hermeneutics of viewers’ engagement with news content.
Sharonee Dasgupta: In that case, why are some politically crucial events or socially significant issues not remembered by the audiences who remember seemingly minor incidents for long? Also, how are socio-cultural context and audiences’ viewing practices co-related?
Ratan Kumar Roy: Indeed, both the questions that you asked are co-related! For instance, viewers remember a news story of a four-year-old child named Jihad trapped in an abandoned pipeline or students protesting in Dhaka’s Street. Both the cases have social significance to the viewers. Mothers in the small town became cautious about their school-going kids since they remember the death of Jihad telecasted on news bulletins. Similarly in the small towns, students have emulated the performative aspects of protest that they saw on the television news. Television has a curatorial and exhibition function related to pedagogy, through which the viewers often learn and remember. But it was evident in the ethnographic location that the process does not follow a linear scheme. Schoolgirls protesting in a small-town referred the earlier television news broadcasts of protests from different cities and demands. These are some clues of how the audiences not only remember certain news but also, how they implement in their everyday life.
The popularity of English wrestling show WWE in rural Bengali communities can be brought here to make better sense of the socio-historical context. In the time of global cultural flow, the viewers may have gained the quality of multiple dwelling. By multiple dwelling I mean in the time of globalized media content flow, viewers often move along with the shows/content they watch of tv. Maybe they are sitting in Dhaka but while watching a travel show they get a feeling of walking in a different city but there is always a cultural logic and legacy behind their current social (media) practices. There must be a historical trajectory of the current practice. The wrestling television game shows are not alien to the viewers of Nilphamari, a Northern district-town of Bangladesh adjacent to Indian border, where I have conducted the ethnography among the television viewers. For the viewers of television in Nilphamari, boxing shows on a fuzzy-screened TV monitor were central point of attraction during the early days. They can recall the shows of Muhammad Ali, a heavyweight champion of the 1960s and 1970s. Current avidity towards wrestling shows among audiences should not be considered abrupt and ahistorical media event when we consider the evidence of viewing familiarity with boxing in the 1980s.
It might be misleading to say that audiences do not remember politically or socially significant events if they are telecasted with care. In the context of South Asia, the way political news has been covered and broadcasted is simply pathetic. In some cases, it is evidently biased and partisan, while in other cases the viewers can see through the fact of controlled regulatory mechanism for political news. The depthless and hyperbolic nature of political news coverage often made the viewers unsatisfied, disenchanted, and irritated. News bulletins lack intensity, news reports lack the quality of investigative journalism. Also, the dependance on soundbites from politicians or policymakers do not help the viewers to gain proper information. That’s why based on the empirical evidence, I argued that the interlinked phenomena of depthless news, disenchanted viewers and a desire for fantasy constitute the nature of contemporary TV news culture in South Asia.
Sharonee Dasgupta: You have also suggested the category of hujug or hype as a key characteristic of TV news culture of Bangladesh. How do you utilize the idea of hujug in understanding the spread of Fake News in our media landscape?
Ratan Kumar Roy: Hujug is a key category to explain and understand TV news practices in South Asia. It is an emic term that means hype or mania. TV news channels tend to put viewers into a hujug by creating rage and urgency. The tendency of adding extra significance to some selected events or issues and creating a vibe around that news item plays a big role in such crazes. Collectively, the media participants create a condition where a particular story overwhelmingly controls news circulation. Bengali poet and modern Indian thinker Rabindranath Tagore’s explanation of hujug fits well to make sense of the TV news culture. To him, hujug is something that might not be deep but extremely flashy, it has to be associated with dancing and making one dance, it requires collective tumult, and it is all about spreading sensation rather than significance in its true sense. The operating of hujug helps create a climate of significance even when there is none. Satellite television news succeeds through a combination of liveliness, present-ness, sensation and significance. Again, the audience plays a key role in this process. In a sense, they are the real agent with the special capacity of giving rebirth to dead events. The reincarnation of events take place in the viewing process, where viewers give social meaning to the event screened on the TV.
Though the media participants get hyper and carried away by hujug, it is not something that can fully capture the spread of fake news. We need to apply another emic term gujob (rumors) to understand this dynamic. Taking the control away from TV channels and authorized news broadcasting agencies, social networking sites make the mediascapes of Bangladesh ambiguous and precarious. The digital domain enables a platform for spreading gujob where provocative, purposive, and fabricated news imageries get cultivated that are a mixture of real and fake, factual and fictious. Therefore, in the context of Bangladesh it is important to consider digital media as a prime platform for fake news circulation producing gujob, while the mainstream TV news channels often take a position against fake news but constantly producing hujug. However, in a broader sense, characterizations of hujug and gujob help to reveal how sensationalized television materials come closer to what we might call fake news.
Sharonee Dasgupta: The key theoretical concept for your study is media ritual.There has been a long debate in classic anthropology to define ritual. In regard to media or to say television news, that is your area of study, how do you situate ritual and how that helps one to contribute theoretically?
Ratan Kumar Roy : There have been considerable scholarly engagements that associated ritual with media and suggested new innovative categories like ‘media ritual’, ‘ritualised media’, ‘ritual view of media’ etc. We need more empirical explorations for elaborating these conceptual categories better. Borrowing from Nick Couldry, I have considered media ritual as a key mechanism in reproducing the legitimacy of media at the centre of social life. Couldry defines media ritual as the formalized actions organized around key media-related categories or patterns. Media rituals enable the framing process, constitute the structural pattern of media where we live, and what we accept and/or reject in our everyday mediated lives.
We can understand the concept media rituals better by paying attention to the social significance and power of media, in Couldry’s term “the myth of mediated center”. It is a prominent center of our social system. Myth of mediated center means the mystery behind the situation that made media take a central role in our everyday social lives. Media-related factors bolster and validate the centralization process. In my empirical engagement in the context of Bangladesh television news culture, I came to understand that appearance on television news helps individuals, or any social acts become promoted into the center of social discourses. TV news validates some social events and issues as central or pivotal. Occurrence in the real world is not sufficient to be noticed unless it is projected on television. Taking the context of the round-the-clock news channels in Bangladesh, I argued that there is a myth that persists in the media ritual: the myth of happenings. This myth makes us believe that an event is real since TV depicts it. Here again you can see the relevance of hujug. People get hyped up in relation to news broadcasted on TV, meaning they are living with sensation almost all the time. On the other hand, news professionals are involved in a routinized action of collecting, formatting, representing every bit of socio-economic-political issues in news bulletins, creating a persistent truth to be lived and believed, which is “happenings”. Media participants in Bangladesh have internalized a pattern of living with the quasi-metaphysical charm of happenings in society. It has become so integral to their existence that they develop a feeling of belonging within the plethora of nicely packaged presentations of events as seemingly more than events – “happenings”. I see a theoretical potential in this concept of “myth of happenings” where the larger practice of hujug sustains a somewhat mythicized version of newsworthy incidents called “happenings”. Media-based social collectivities are shaped and transformed around the myth of happenings.
Sharonee Dasgupta: The final question to you is about the experiences of doing television ethnography. How does one conduct television ethnography?
Ratan Kumar Roy: Since I had to focus on the interface between television news and audiences, a multisited ethnography was vital to gain a holistic view about the actions and practices of the participants and the sounds and sights of the locations where they are situated. The everydayness of viewing television, engaging with news content and constituting discourses need to be placed before the everydayness of the newsroom, journalistic practices and diverse actions related to news-making. The subjects and cases of multisited ethnography are situated and distributed variedly, and thus the need to follow the aspects and move on to multiple locations is vital. It was imperative to follow the process and practices of news-making in multiple locations and move with the people engaged in the TV news culture. While multisited ethnography has been influential in bringing depth and local perspectives, auto-ethnography, on the other hand, aided in reflecting on the cultural and social practices from the vantage point of personal experiences. Auto-ethnographic accounts don’t just highlight experiences and personal relationships to television media culture but, as Adams et al. (2017) stated ‘humanize the research by focusing on life as “lived through” in its complexities.’ My professional network as a television journalist helped provide access to the newsroom and interactions with the respondents from an insider’s perspective. A careful and critical outlook has been used to maintain the balance between experiential and experimental, viewpoints of the self and the other, and personal orientation and perspectives of the respondents to mitigate the overwhelming nature of auto-ethnography.
Entry into the field, getting access and ethical dilemma at various levels of data collection were crucial. Long-term conversation, regular chitchat over tea, and a routine visit to the mundane afternoon gatherings of people help me build trust. Media ethnographers should hone their ability to be multitasking researchers at work. We need to be ready to capture ‘on the ground perspectives’, and take multiple challenges to ‘follow the people’, ‘follow the metaphor’ and ‘follow the life’ at once.
There can be many questions posed to the researcher. But for me, above all , the question posed by the respondents remains more vital: ‘What is the point of knowing about our television viewing practice?’ This should not be taken as their resistance but rather curiosity about the practicality and effectiveness of such research. That encounter led me to bring out creative strategies for participating in social conversation and observing everyday life in general. We need to approach audiences in everyday life through long-term familiarization and intensive observation. To deal with the challenges of doing media ethnography, the most effective method is to take a break and be reflexive in every encounter with the media participants and their practices in a mediated social setting while continuing to correspond with the ethnographic sensibilities.
Finally, I reiterate the need for and importance of media ethnography in the context of South Asian media and communication research. We must acknowledge that media ethnography enables us to know and offers a unique way of knowing, qualifies us to participate and observe, simultaneously appears to be ontological and epistemological, theoretical, and methodological, and a way of researching and writing in the field of communication research in South Asia.