Making business out of grief

BY Tarangini Sriraman| IN Media Practice | 24/07/2004
Are journalists in the business of grief-mongering? Are they perverse creatures on the prowl for morbidity and misery?

Roy however failed to remark on the journalist`s perverse hankering after exclusive coverage, extraordinary footage and comprehensive news analysis whenever a calamity befalls the people. The latest instance of this has been the coverage in the Kumbakonam school fire.

September 11 was no trailblazer in journalistic behaviour. It signaled a habit rather than a new trend. The journalist makes an honest living out of spilling disaster across his newspaper pages or spewing news of a catastrophe on TV channels. Not surprisingly then, the journalist writing a cover story on the Mumbai riots or the Gujarat carnage expects to be rewarded for his bold and sensitive style.

 Without taking away from the journalists their exemplary commitment to honest reporting and to the cause for which they write, it could be said that there is a very thin line separating this commitment from the scramble for juicy news. The reporter sometimes rings false in his self-conscious rendering of news concerning a particular disaster. This is because reporting every such disaster is viewed as a ticket to stardom. M.J.Akbar in his article "A 9/11 Diary", written a year after the event,  quite appropriately drives home the desperation of the journalist faced with the daunting task of making fresh connections while reporting the repercussions of the shattering attack on America. "My heart was particularly moved by the sports writers searching for insidious ways and sinuous means to fit a national cause into a football game." From the markets to air travel, immigration, Asians abroad, business firms, art themes and conspiracy theories about Osama, Saddam, the Japs and the Jews, 9/11 was roaring business for journalists.

But then, it is important to remind ourselves that Sept.11 was only a manifestation of the larger phenomenon -the unhealthy tracking of wrecked lives, destruction, carnage and misery at large. The average journalist goes berserk when a Kandahar hijack (live hostage drama), a Dec.13, a Daniel Pearl abduction or a Bhopal gas tragedy occurs. A classic example of the media pandering to the public`s taste for the grotesque and the controversial would be Al-Jazeera, the Qatar-based televison channel.

 By their exclusive broadcasting of gory videotapes showing executions mercilessly being carried out by terrorists, Al-Jazeera suspends all civilised norms of media conduct. From the bombastic utterances of Osama and Al Qaeda spokesmen to the execution of Daniel Pearl, to broadcasting various live hostage crises sending veiled threats to governments including Italy, Japan, Philippines and Bulgaria to withdraw their troops from Iraq, Al-Jazeera is a free-for-all channel. But when a channel has keenly worked towards building a reputation for broadcasting the dark and the ugly, any criticism would seem beside the point.

Sometimes there is eager anticipation, scenario-building all serving to heighten the tense atmosphere. This was true of Iraq where CNN and Fox News sat pretty in Falluja and Tikrit much before coalition troops arrived, almost as if to say, hell, we are here, where on earth is the war? So President Bush`s stakes in the war were far more than just regulating oil supply and handling the glut in the armaments industry. He would have risked a huge loss of face among media circles had he backed out of war plans the last minute.

This kind of scenario-building and pre-emption of the government`s decision were true even of the Kandahar hijack. A conspicuous presence among the anxious relatives thronging the PM`s residence was the group of excited reporters mobilising public opinion in favour of the concessions demanded by the hijackers. The media seemed then to be pre-empting all action against the terrorists. Any such action was equal to jeopardising the lives of the hijacked and the associated lives of the relatives or so the journalistic message went.

Embedded journalism is the worst case of journalistic non-ethics as yet. Live coverage of war compounded by effects of risks incurred in reporting intense war activity serves to create all the wrong images-of legitimising war and casualisng casualty. Where there are ongoing military operations, it is easy to suspend all analytical faculties and concentrate on ground movement.

Today so-called investigative journalism (such as Tehelka and sting journalism exposing Judev-and-Jogi type frauds) raises serious questions about the ethics of journalism while the indiscriminate coverage of human loss is seen as the last place to cry wolf. The matter-of-fact and crisp rendering of a farmer`s suicide triggering off his family`s ruin in Andhra Pradesh, poverty-stricken drought victims or the politics in selling kidneys is by  far unassailable where ethical issues are concerned.

Nor is it the case that journalists have lost the capacity altogether to be sensitive to matters of life and death. The whole point is they have an incredible way of betraying too much emotion while reporting a macabre murder and showing remarkable self-restraint in describing a drought. The sordid details of a jealous husband plotting against his adulterous wife are a better bet than the grim spectacle of arid lands and pesticide-consuming farmers. A model killed in cold blood by a politician, a poet killed in Bihar, a tender college-going girl stabbed to death in a classroom in Vijayawada are disturbing facts which are nonetheless necessary to know. But need we be treated to soundbytes, follow-up articles splashing blood across photographs incessantly to the exclusion of other news?

 The moral of the story is not temperance, but balanced outrage. One can only appeal to journalists to whip up the same passion they feel for murders, terrorist attacks, carnage and assassinations for the less sensational, but equally important, issues like rural indebtedness, farmers` suicides, caste discrimination and child labour. These may not be very promising in terms of readership and viewership, but knowledge of these is not any the less important for it.

The writer is a student at the Asian College of Journalism at Chennai. Contact:
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