Reporting Gujarat:selective contextualisation and editorial amnesia

IN Media Practice | 05/09/2002
Reporting Gujarat: selective contextualisation and editorial amnesia

Reporting Gujarat: selective contextualisation and editorial amnesia

The media tore the whole turmoil out of its context and, as Johann Galtung says, focussed on the irrational without looking at the reasons for the unresolved conflicts and polarization. 

 By Dasu Krishnamoorty 

The texts of journalists sizzled like the fires of conflict in Gujarat, unloading on the readers miles of angry prose that is the envy of Arundhati Roy. Since reporting mainly concerns facts, it loses some of factualness when narrative is employed as the ballast of the text and facts as its handmaiden. Narrative has the quality of producing ideological closure denying the reader an alternative account. In the stampede for outdoing each other, reporters seem to have forgotten this aspect. Editors had to do a lot of explaining at seminars and in the columns of their own newspapers to live down the charge of bias. One crucial way in which reporting is distinguished from analyses and other forms of editorial exercises is agency-style writing that is clinical and neutral. It abjures passions and so does not arouse passions. In times of social strife, it becomes doubly necessary to respect this norm.

Narrative transforms the reporter from an observer of the event to an interpreter of the event and some times a prosecutor. Religious strife has always inspired reporters to scale the heights of free verse. Arty prose either edges out or embellishes facts. A fact-fiction partnership usurps the traditional story structuring of its functional role. Gujarat riots saw heavily structured and treated reports. The new tradition began with newsmen discovering the joys of creative journalism and affiliation to exotic ideologies. Once a reporter believes in some ¿ism¿, he forfeits his credentials to be a reporter. The ideology of that ¿ism¿ seeps into his reports too. He will be an asset for a party journal.

Loss of Perspective

Since someone has already written for The Hoot on this aspect of reporting, I will limit myself only to two aspects of our press in reporting and commenting on the Gujarat riots. One is decontextualisation or selective contextualisation. The other is editorial amnesia. The trouble began in Godhra when mobs set ablaze a train carrying kar sewaks returning from Ayodhya. Next day reprisals started and took more than two months to stop. Now, to attribute the violence to the goings-on in Ayodhya or the arson at Godhra or the reaction to it is to drown the real context. I do not deny that hundreds have been killed or do I deny it is a heinous crime. Those are facts but not all the facts. But the constant reference to Ayodhya to contextualise the Gujarat tragedy pushed to the background the original setting that informs all communal riots in the country.

The media tore the whole turmoil out of its context and, as Johann Galtung says, focussed on the irrational without looking at the reasons for the unresolved conflicts and polarization. It is the context of the event that helps the audience to accomplish a tenable perspective of the event. Neither the arson at Godhra nor the continuing riots in Ahmedabad are independent of a past or are sudden and unpredicted occurrences. They were waiting to happen. This past has been visiting the people repeatedly and ruthlessly: a past rooted in the partition of the country on the basis of religion. The founders of the Indian republic embraced secularism but enshrined religion in the Constitution. The problem started here and without this context all reporting tends to be one-sided.

Accepting partition on the basis of religion meant recognition of the thesis that religion could be the context for nation making. The Constitution sanctified religion by conferring privileges and safeguards on minorities, on the basis of their faith. This is the genesis of the communal divide. Several times, the Supreme Court of India tried to define the frontiers of religious privileges. Nearly every political party, mainly the Congress, thwarted such efforts. For instance, the bill to reserve seats for women in Parliament could not even be tabled because the Samajwadi Party demanded that the seats be distributed on a religious basis. As Jawaharlal Nehru said: If you seek to give special safeguards to a minority, you isolate it. Maybe, you protect it, but at what cost? At the cost of isolating it and keeping it away from the main current in which the majority is going, at the cost of forgetting that inner sympathy and fellow feeling with the majority.


Subscribe To The Newsletter
The new term for self censorship is voluntary censorship, as proposed by companies like Netflix and Hotstar. ET reports that streaming video service Amazon Prime is opposing a move by its peers to adopt a voluntary censorship code in anticipation of the Indian government coming up with its own rules. Amazon is resisting because it fears that it may alienate paying subscribers.                   

Clearly, the run to the 2019 elections is on. A journalist received a call from someone saying they were from Aajtak channel and were conducting a survey, asking whom she was going to vote for in 2019. On being told that her vote was secret, the caller assumed she wasn't going to vote for 'Modiji'. The caller, a woman, also didn't identify herself. A month or two earlier the same journalist received a call, this time from a man, asking if she was going to vote for the BSP.                 

View More