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Child prodigies and television news scripts… aaaw!

December 28, 2008

Guest post by KISHORE BUDHA

Without taking anything away from M Lavinashree’s abilities (I am not sure I want to valorise her achievement), surely the narrative of the NDTV news report is telling. The script follows a three act structure — a) it introduces us to the dominant frame that the news segment will stick to and introduces to us the character; b) talks about the hurdles and her achievements, and then c) talks about the future. Most of us would imagine news reports as unproblematic. However, it is possible to be a little imaginative and penetrate news a little deeper. That would reveal for example the three-act structure of news report narratives, the usage of frames to raise the salience of certain aspects of the event, the choice of words used in construction of the narrative.

Using the example of an NDTV report of Lavinashree as “child wonder” I will analyse the news script by breaking it down and analysing it. In doing so, I will demonstrate that television news goes beyond simple reporting of facts. In fact, news events are used to play up, or play down, what media imagines as the world out there and how things are ordered in it.

For example, former President APJ Abdul Kalam figures prominently in the public discourse about science, technology, and development. His techno-managerial views of India leapfrogging to become a developed country by 2020 have been given salience in the public sphere, even when academic writings are of greater use to understand India’s pressing problems. Thus, it is not difficult to imagine a social construction of discourse in which media plays a prominent part to reinforce and replay ideas. These supposed ideas barely mask a fascination with personalities. Thus, the interrogation of the idea is sacrificed over the personality cult.

Kancha Ilaiah, writing in Why I am not a Hindu argues that the educational system in India reflects a bias against traditional knowledge systems. Giving the example of the education he received as a child he points at a wealth of knowledge that would never be given credit for in the established education system:

“I learnt about the diseases that the sheep were afflicted with, how a delivery should be ‘midwifed’, how young ones should be handled, which was the best green grass for rearing sheep. Goats required special treatment as they were fed with tree leaves (goats do not eat grass)…”

So, is this a reflection of the editorial decision taken at the news headquarters to frame the story a certain way? Was the reporter overawed by the wider media and political acclaim the child received that he decided to not be critical. Was this a reflection of the intellectual limitations of the reporter? We have to put the media’s fascination with Indians’ “global achievements” in perspective.

The proverbial ink has not yet dried on the case of Sridhar Kamble from Kolhapur who reflects a deeper understanding of the media that even us media researchers do. Perhaps realising the media’s weakness for stories of achievement of “global scientific acclaim”, he presented himself as having won a NASA scholarship (Business Standard story here). The same media quickly denounced him (IBN story here). What does this tell us — that the media can be duped easily? That is the intellectually shallow argument. I think it reflects a wider media and social tendency to be seen as belonging to the global, symbolised by certain ideas and ideals such as NASA and Microsoft.

I will not take the ideological position of denouncing these urges. These are choices that NDTV, Sam Daniels, and the audience can make. What is important is to be reflective of, recognise, and critique what these could possibly mean. I argue that what appear as ideas are nothing more than motifs that highlight our own preferences for what we consider “normal”. The “not normal” act of obtaining the certificate at the age of nine becomes news, all the while masking the normalcy of wanting to obtain an industry certification.

Why does NDTV call Madurai rural India? Does obtaining a certificate by a rural Indian make the former even more coveted? What is the recitation of1330 verses of Thirukural and passing the Microsoft Certified Professional exam proof of — the child’s ability to memorise or what the society will consider an “achievement”, or sign of a “prodigy”, or “wonder”. Would the understanding of Thirukural not be a more important objective of reading the classic in the first place? All these are questions that Sam Daniel and NDTV could have asked and encouraged its audience to ponder, but failed to do so.

Start of Segment.

ACT 1

News presenter

(six seconds into her announcement, the headline “Small Wonder” is headlined over the news presenter and stays through most of the segment). Comments in parentheses mine:

a fourth standard girl from rural Tamil Nadu has become the youngest to qualify for the Microsoft Certified Professional Examination (the frames of child prodigy, rural India, prestige of achievement are introduced). NDTV’s Chandran and Sam Daniel send this report on the child prodigy.

Voice over

“A genius at work. At 9 Lavinashree is the world’s youngest Microsoft Certified Professional. The Microsoft exam, usually taken by techies for better job prospects measures problem solving skills and Lavinashree passed it with flying colours breaking a record held by Arfa Karim, a ten-year-old Pakistani. The Madurai based 4th standard student has already planned her future. (the introductory frames are elaborated on. See underlined text)

Lavinashree Soundbite

Dr APJ Abdul Kalam is a very big scientist so I want to be like him. (Lavinashree references Kalam as aspirational model. Kalam’s ascendancy to the public consciousness is to a large part thanks to the mainstream media, which has portrayed him as a national hero. The Pakistani parallel to Kalam is Abdul Qadeer Khan, who though disgraced by the establishment is nonetheless a national hero for giving the country a nuclear bomb. Rising to the position of President of India, Kalam on the other hand is known for his techno-managerial vision of India’s ascendancy to superpower status, a theme that has been part of the Indian media discourse).

Lavanya, Lavindashree’s Sister:

ACT 2

Shot of certificates of records held by Lavinashree

“Lavinashree is used to creating records. When she was just three, she was listed in the Limca Book of Records for reciting all 1330 couplets of Thirukural one of the Tamil classics. That’s when her parents decided to encourage her tremendous memory but an admission to a software program wasn’t easy. ( In the facts presented by the news report, the child’s achievements are more memory intensive. There is no evidence of development of a skill beyond that. Does the reporter demonstrate any level of criticality or does being a child prevent one from critical scrutiny?).

The first professionals at Tandem said they would not join (sic) her… as she urm seemed to be so young. Finally after so much of testing and all she was admitted.

Lavinashree’s father, speaking in Tamil:

We are so happy and proud of her

ACT 3

News reporter voiceover

This child prodigy’s admirer’s include many national leaders from President Kalam to Prime Minster Manmohan Singh and Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Karunanidhi. In fact, according to Lavinashree’s father the Tamil Nadu government is likely to announce that they will take care of the child’s education. Who knows, she might turn out to be India’s Bill Gates one day.

End of Segment

A visual analysis of the script, thanks to Wordle.net:

lavinashree_ndtv_wordle

2 Comments leave one →
  1. kishorebudha permalink
    December 29, 2008 4:05 AM

    This documentary on Akrit Jaiswal is perhaps a useful training tool for Indian journalists? Not that it is unproblematic in the way Oxbridge scientists sit in judgement. But notwithstanding such issues, it still raises more problems rather than celebrating Akrit, who is clearly a prodigy.

    Part 1

    http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=oQif24jIGWY

    Part 2

    http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=gkDx7mRGmyM&NR=1

    Part 3

    http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=M9BrgT0s9eQ

    Part 4

    http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=MLiYyt4NWxU&feature=related

    Part 5

    http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=G_9z95ZPnb8

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  1. Child prodigies and television news scripts… aaaw! Guest post at Kafila.org | Subaltern Media

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