The gang-rape of the photojournalist in Mumbai last week has resulted both in a blitz of media coverage as well as discussions and debates amongst journalists on the state of the media.
The media, shaken at the attack on a colleague and rattled by the realisation that it could have been anyone of them, came together in a spontaneous protest. The incident has elicited a range of responses – from discussions on safety, preparedness to tackle attacks while on assignments, sharing of experiences of close shaves and the precarious nature of impermanent jobs and the responsibilities of media managements in ensuring the security of their employees.
Unfortunately, there is a huge disconnect between the anger the incident evoked amongst media professionals and their own coverage
of the incident. Already, there are several instances of the ethical considerations that were thrown to the winds in the coverage that followed the incident. But how much of this was an inevitable part of the media’s hunger for stories? How much of it was avoidable?
In its desperate race to feed news-hungry 24/7 media channels and print media outlets fighting for circulation, the media is consuming itself. Can the media steer clear of sensationalist reportage that violates the privacy of those affected? Can the media stop feeding the beast?
For years, women’s organisations have been raising issues of media coverage and of society’s response in rape cases. Debates on gender-sensitive reporting techniques have focused on terminology, on the use of victim or survivor, on usage of ‘alleged’ or ‘accused’ as a prefix to the charge of rape or rapists
till an order of conviction is meted out. There are guidelines (see here
) governing coverage of sexual offences, war, communal riots or conflict.
Are journalists not aware of these guidelines? Do they get any kind of training or orientation when they do go out into the field? Don’t they have editorial gatekeepers who vet copy?
Several media houses appear to have given the go by to gate-keeping norms and instead, put immense pressure on their staff to cover a story with every possible angle. Journalists this writer spoke to tell of how it becomes difficult to resist editorial pressures especially when other newspapers
break a story. “When they can do it, why didn’t you? Go find out who is talking?” that’s the directive and the reporter on the job finds it well-nigh impossible to say ‘No’.
A leading newspaper that prides itself on the largest circulation sent a senior journalist to the residence of the woman journalist. A tabloid published the name of the publication she was working for. Another tabloid went to another extreme – it published pictures of her male colleague as he took the police to the site of the crime. It pixelated his face but other markers – including the T-shirt he wore, were actually drawn attention to! These, even while four of the accused were still at large, compromising the youth’s safety.
In a moving plea to the media, the mother of the journalist asked for restraint and asked the media to avoid visiting their residence and interviewing neighbours and the security guards
in the building. The journalist intended to get back to normal life and such intrusions on their privacy would not help them pick up the threads again.
Today, outside the hospital where the woman journalist was admitted, is a notice board that proclaims ‘no reporter/media personnel are allowed in the hospital premises’ without the permission of the hospital’s CEO. The hospital, which has anyway been issuing health bulletins regularly, took the step because a reporter from a city daily managed to breach hospital security and climbed the stairs to the ward where the girl is admitted!
The reporter planned to meet the relatives of the girl but the hospital, alerted by a relative, immediately called security. The reporter did submit an apology and remorseful about the transgression, refrained from filing any story for the newspaper but the incident still begs the question: why did the reporter go to the hospital ward
in the first place?
In other newspapers, as lawyer Flavia Agnes
pointed out, the mothers of the accused have been portrayed as ‘breeders of rapists’. Yet another tabloid profiled a minor boy who informed the police of the whereabouts of the accused and lauded him for his efforts, but foolishly published his picture (though his face was to the back of the camera). Didn’t the newspaper realise it would compromise a witness?
These instances, unfortunately, are not exceptions. Over the years, media transgressions are too numerous to recount. In Bangalore
in 2012, this writer participated in a panel discussion on privacy at the National Law School, a few months after a student had been raped while out on a walk with a friend. The law school students were angered by the ‘excessive’ reportage the case attracted from local media. They couldn’t fathom how the media could provide unnecessary details of the girl’s personal life and disclose all the markers to her identity.
In another law school in Hyderabad
, the problem was entirely different – excessive voyeurism by the media. Here, the media have taken to stalking pubs and filmed students as they emerged from a party. The television channels that did so justified their moral policing!
In 2009, a leading tabloid received much flak for publishing the FIR
(first information report) of a student of TISS
who had filed a complaint of gang-rape after attending a party with some youth. The newspaper highlighted graphic and completely unnecessary details of the party. It did apologise to readers afterwards for hurting their sentiments, at the same time maintaining that the FIR was a public document.
How the media balances public interest with public hunger for tidbits is really a crucial question. As long as it is driven by the desire to push up circulation and both its owners as well as the journalists working in the media turn a blind eye to ethical boundaries, the news will be churned out.