Every text has a context

IN Media Practice | 22/06/2005
Every text has a context




To what extent can headline writers, who have become a specialised tribe in some of the regional newspapers, take liberty with the headlines?




S R Ramanujan




A major criticism against the media is that it distorts news, takes quotes out of context and sensationalises the headlines. The charge was found to be having some substance in reporting Advani’s tribute to Jinnah.  Neither Advani’s speech at Katasraj temple or his lecture in Karachi nor his entry in the visitors’ book at the mausoleum of Pakistan founder Jinnah, made a mention of the expression that is used in the present controversy that   "Jinnah was a secular leader". True, Advani said that Jinnah was a great leader, man who created history rather than being part of history and that he envisioned a secular Pakistan. But, what got stuck because of the headlines was that "Advani calls Jinnah secular, great".  Subsequent developments like Advani’s resignation that was written while in Karachi, its withdrawal under pressure, his call for a debate on Jinnah might justify the headlines. But you don’t anticipate a development and write the headlines.


The question is to what extent the headline writers, who have become a specialised tribe in some of the regional newspapers, can take liberty with the headlines? Can they interpret the news or editorialise the news in the headlines? Admittedly, bland headlines will not appeal to the readers and they have to be drawn to the news item with some creativity in the headlines. It is certainly an art. But can it distort the spirit of the text? This is the grouse of the Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Dr Y S Rajasekara Reddy against the local newspapers; the headlines have nothing to do with the text of the news.


Fine, politicians are bound to have complaints against the media. But there are certain realities which cannot be brushed aside. The problem is print media is trying to compete with the soundbyte soldiers so that readers have something different in the headlines.  When you thrust the mike on Togadias and Singhals you come out with explosive stuff just like the militant outfits or those holding street dharnas go hysterical when they see the television cameras. There were occasions when television reporters asked such people to enact a "drama" before the camera. On many an occasion tragedies were trivialized for the sake of camera effects.


Before Advani episode could subside, we have Yasin Malik who is also accusing the media of distorting his comments. No doubt, politicians make this charge whenever things go out of hand or not in their favour, but let us look at the headlines carried by different newspapers on the same day reporting the same event while Malik was in Pakistan.


"Yasin says Pak minister set up terrorist camps" (Deccan Chronicle - page l)

"Malik thanks Pak Minister for terror camp" (The New Indian Express - page 9)

"India fumes as Pak minister’s terror lid blown" - kicker: ‘Sheikh Rashid Ran Camp For Jehadis’ (The Times of India - page 1 second lead)

"Media distorted my comments, says Yasin Malik’ (The Hindu - page 12)

"I did not support terrorism: Rashid" (The Hindu - page 12)


The Hindu report is different because the daily subsequently spoke to Yasin Malik when he said : "I fail to understand the mention of militant camps in Pakistan when I never talked about it. Representatives of so many television networks were present at a photo exhibition organized by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) on Monday when I made the speech.


"All I said was I met Mr Rashid when I crossed over from the other side in 1998 and he was hospitable to fellow Kashmiris. It is a matter of record and could be verified by anyone."


According to The Hindu, the controversy was triggered following publication of a report in a Pakistan daily quoting Mr Malik as saying that at the peak of militancy in Kashmir Mr Rashid’s camps trained 3500 Kashmiri fighters.


"Sheikh Rashid has played a great role for Kashmiris’ liberation. He used to support the frontline jehadis but very few people know about his contribution", the daily quoted Mr Malik as saying at the function where the Minister was also present.


Sheikh Rashid Ahmed is Pakistan’s Information and Broadcasting Minister and he is a Kashmiri. He is the most visible face in the Indo-Pak peace process.  It may be a fact, as revealed by Malik himself, that he extended all possible help to jihadis at the peak of the movement in the nineties. The Pak daily may also be privy to the fact that he was instrumental in setting up training camps in PoK. Does that give liberty to attribute something to Malik that he did not say and enable headline writers to make headlines quite juicy.


The Indian government has taken a serious note of Malik’s revelations and what would be its impact on the peace process is a different story. But the delicious irony cannot be missed. Advani recalled Jinnah’s past and said he was a great leader. He invited trouble from his own partymen alright, but pleased Pakistan.  Malik recalled Rashid’s past in helping the Jihadis and embarrassed Pakistan though Pakistan went out of the way to humour these separatist leaders.


Trivialisation of news is another scourge afflicting the media. Suryanarayana Reddy alias Suri is the accused in the Penukonda MLA Paritala Ravi’s murder case.  During the run-up to the by-polls, EC ordered that he be shifted out of Anantapur and so he was taken to Vizag jail.  After the by-elections, he was shifted back to Anantapur and it is a routine process.  ETV placed its camera team in front of the Vizag jail and was shooting all the vehicles that were coming out of the jail for more than five minutes and even recording the natural sound when the vehicles passed through the gate.  As if to be one up above, TV9, another Telugu news channel brought its reporter live on the screen and the anchor did not know what to ask. She said : "Tell me X, what all you know about Suri’s shift?" That is the level of television reporting!

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