Concept of ‘news’ has changed in the time of coronavirus

A lot of sports writing in India, even before the pandemic, was overly reliant on cricketers’ tweets and Instagram pictures. This, despite the fact that readers have access to the same platforms.

Roger Federer had a chat with Rafael Nadal on Instagram, inquiring after family and friends during the COVID-19 pandemic.   -  AFP

When in doubt, interview. For many journalists, this was a mantra they grew up with. Sports journalists were no exception. During a lean period, often in the off season, there was always some sportsman who was willing to talk of the good old days or criticise the current players or generally speak of what’s wrong with his sport. It was a win-win situation. The player was grateful for the media space, the interviewer gave the impression of having been working, and the newspaper or magazine had the distinction of carrying an “exclusive”. It was safe.

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The pandemic seems to have changed all that. Now, when in doubt, listen to someone else interview. When Roger Federer has a chat with Rafael Nadal on Instagram, inquiring after family and friends and discovering that contrary to popular belief Nadal is a natural left -hander, that’s fun. Of sorts. But when newspapers report that as exciting news, it is worrying.

Many internationals have taken to social media to chat with colleagues, to interview old friends and rivals — some of it is fun, some deliberately provocative, and all of them dangerously close to eliminating the need to hire sportswriters in our newspapers and magazines. Quite unwittingly (one presumes), sportswriters are voluntarily co-operating in the extinction of their own species!

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Why would the bosses want to hire bright young writers when they can fill their columns with such celebrity interviews and personal gossip? A “how is your family” from Federer to Nadal is worth — in their estimation — any amount of analysis or news breaks from the professionals trained to do the job.

Perhaps it is an extension of how the concept of ‘news’ has changed. News is what Donald Trump tweets, what Kangana Ranaut conveys through social media. The advantage that Trump and politicians like him (many of whom refuse to hold press conferences) have is that they thus control the narrative. There are no questions, no follow-up questions, and things repeated with enough emphasis become the ‘truth.’

A lot of sports writing in India, even before the pandemic, was overly reliant on cricketers’ tweets and Instagram pictures. This, despite the fact that readers have access to the same platforms.

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Since the early days of the lockdown, many cricketers have taken to interviewing players, taking questions from the viewers, and generally keeping themselves active and relevant while having fun into the bargain. Recent additions to the list are W. V. Raman who talks a good game, and Ravichandran Ashwin who interviewed badminton star Pullela Gopichand on his YouTube channel. They bring to their shows the same professionalism and awareness that they do to their sport.

Perhaps I am biased (OK, no perhaps about it, I am biased). But I do miss the cadence and flow of a well-written essay on sport, a personality profile or an opinion that challenges orthodoxy. The best always surprise either with their language or point of view, or both. When in doubt, surprise is a useful motto too.