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Monday, July 25, 2011

Breaking News: Drowning Out a Tragedy

Blasts Show Up Television News

What exactly were the television news crews after when they fanned out in the broken precincts of Bombay on the evening of the serial bomb blasts? They were intrusive, unmindful of the privacy of injured citizens and the grief of relatives of dead victims. Screaming and shouting, they collared eyewitnesses to ask them what they had seen. Worse, they tramped into hospital emergency rooms to focus on blood and gore. The result was a jumble of accounts. Piecing the fragments together, the picture that emerged was distorted, like looking at a high definition satellite television picture in a rainstorm.

As the news spread via television, the confusion seemed to grow. The jumbled pictures and stray, disjointed comments from shell-shocked citizens did little to reveal the dimensions of the tragedy. Amid the hysterics, rumors emerged to heighten public anxiety. Emergency services took time to get to the blast sites; police officers at the venues appeared clueless and the government response hesitant.

The next day, July 14, the focus changed completely. News channels seemed to have decided to go a step beyond reporting the news. Instead, they came up with an angle: enough of praising Bombay’s resilience; time to hit out at politicians, bureaucrats and policemen for failing to prevent the attacks. Their reporters waded into trains, scoured the city, looking for the “man in the street.” They ambushed hapless citizens and made them perform to a script.

There are two problems with this: one, can journalists in reporting an event come to it with a premeditated slant? Can editors accept their reporters passing off opinions as facts? Man-on-the-street interviews are useful as local color but they can’t be the story. Or chasing celebrities for their views on the tragedy? This latter approach can only be in pursuit of ratings.

Two, what does it mean when you say Bombay is resilient? A city can have a character and Bombay certainly does have a business-like approach to life. Residents of this city carry on efficiently despite crumbling infrastructure, slums, the underworld, housing shortages, milling crowds and a general sense of decay. That is resilience but it is on display everyday, not just at times of crisis.

It appears that the day after the blasts, the channels decided that “resilience” was an old bromide with no traction among viewers. You would have thought they would have upbraided their reporters for hyping the tragedy. Instead, they sent them, armed with a line, to barge into the tragedy once again: hectoring citizens to read from their script. The crews set out afresh to interview citizens in different parts of the city, asking leading questions. The story angle was clear: left to its own devices, resilient Bombay was angry.

“This city has been the victim of many terrorist blasts. Aren’t you angry and tense? Aren’t you tired of being called resilient and left to fend for yourself? Aren’t you tired of being taken for granted by the government?” The questions flew thick and fast as did the changing headlines on television screens. “Resilient, tired, angry,” they screamed. The television news channels seemed to have decided on the line; their field reporters goaded citizens into “confirming” the story in front of the cameras.

The journalistic practices of the television news media could be the subject of scholarly analysis some distance from “breaking news.” What is of immediate concern is that such ambulance-chasing tactics stoked public insecurities. Television reporters instigated citizens to berate the government in prime time.

This is not to suggest that criticism of the government is unacceptable. Indeed, authorities must be held answerable if they fail or are slow to respond. To do this, reporters need to ferret out hard facts. The analysis can only be effective at some distance from the events. Instant judgments spread fear and rumor at a time when public anxiety is running high.

Where they had a chance to calm things down, bring people together in the face of a major terrorist attack, the news channels took a lowly road. They hyped the events and indulged in the worst kind of speculation and rumor. Sensationalism reigned supreme.

In the face of shrill attempts by news channels to show up its inadequacies, the government response was restrained. The home minister and the prime minister winged their way to Bombay within 24 hours of the incidents. The prompt steps by the leadership blunted the edge of the media’s hysterical coverage.

Finally, Maharashtra chief minister Prithviraj Chavan made an appearance on all major channels and made some candid remarks about the strengths and limitations of government. His bravura performance took the wind out of media hysterics. His direct manner did much to defuse the media hype. His comments went much further than anyone in the Congress or the Opposition reckoned. Chavan was a refreshing voice on television. He spoke with a sincerity that has never been seen before. He appeared at once humble and fully in control, candid and unafraid to speak his mind.

Finally, it is a matter of some irony that the media hype may have actually denied the perpetrators of the Bombay blasts their day in the sun. Maybe India has found a way to deal with terrorism: bury it in hype, trample it in public debate. If only real people didn’t die or get injured!

Copyright Rajiv Desai 2011