Traditional media abdicated

BY Archana Venkat| IN Media Practice | 18/08/2012
By harping on rumours, the media's coverage of the recent exodus of people of North East Indian origin showed that it had little intention of seeking the truth.
ARCHANA VENKAT scans print and television
For the last two days visuals of hordes of North Easterners jostling each other to get into trains at the Bangalore railway station have been repeatedly aired on several news channels. Last evening this story was catapulted to becoming national news and all news channels continued to show similar footage through the night extending into Friday morning. Words like rumour, danger, panic, attacks and uncertainty (and equivalents of these in every regional language) were used by reporters, anchors as well as tickers running on air. To someone who just tuned in to watch news, it would seem like the communities fleeing had been attacked by violent mobs and were running to save their lives.
This is just one example of the skewed coverage around this developing story. Subsequent TV news reports showed politicians assuring people of their safety, even as anchors and reporters continued to toe the “rumour” and “danger” lines, almost as if they wanted to maintain that the media’s stand on the issue was somehow different from the Ministers’. Zee News carefully clipped parts of certain speeches and chose to the keep the spotlight on its reporter who repeated the word “rumour” in Hindi, even as the screen juxtapositioned a stampede-like situation at a train station.
Was such importance given to rumours because the media showed no inclination to go looking for the truth?
NDTV at the end of its reports put out an appeal for calm, positioning it as ‘their view’ of the situation. In the appeal they blamed ‘extremists’ for fanning the fire of hatred. This is a speculation and contradicts their reportage which did not mention any source for these rumours apart from hearsay from fellow North Easterners. The word extremist in recent times has been associated with Muslims. Using such language is irresponsible, particularly when several Muslim leaders came out to extend their support towards the safety and security of North Easterners. Is the channel trying to rubbish this support?
CNN-IBN at the end of its reportage put out a set of questions. They included aspects on how to quell fear among the fleeing people, role of community leaders in doing this and whether mischief-makers were giving this situation a communal color. One would think these questions were relevant for the channel’s reporters to pursue and report about, but unfortunately these questions ended up as mere thoughts for the public to dwell on.
A Times Now debate had Arnab Goswami questioning a panel on why there was no action taken against rumour-mongerers. Perhaps someone should have told him that no one has yet been identified as the source of starting these rumours. Asking endangered parties to stop warning their brethren about imminent danger (as communicated by the media), is not going to work. Ironically the debate was titled ‘Stop the rumour mongering’.
If the TV coverage fuelled panic, the print media decided to exercise restraint to the point that they barely scratched the surface of the tension brewing in the city.
The Hindu identified some instances of assault on North Easterners in some parts of Bangalore and provided an opportunity for the affected youth and the Karnataka Law Minister to interact. While the Minister urged the youth to file complaints, the youth refused saying they would not get any security upon filing complaints. This is representative of the perspectives held by the North Easterners. Instead of asking the Minister and perhaps the Police officials on how they attempted to tackle this notion and provide security, the paper chose to drop the issue. Was this just an attempt to expose yet another weakness of our law and order system?
The Hindustan Times detailed the measures that the Karnataka police intended to take such as intensified patrolling of areas populated by North Easterners and continuous interaction with them to get any leads for the future. However, it underscored the point that the Police would not act until someone filed a case of assault. To make this point clear, the report quotes the nodal officer appointed by the Karnataka police as saying no police intelligence was found on any attacks. Shouldn’t stray attacks, such as the one mentioned above, be considered by the police to initiate some kind of internal action so that such incidents don’t balloon into tragedies?
The Economic Times added a spare line in its report on the possible source of these fear-inducing SMSes, saying there could be multiple parties involved in creating this tensed atmosphere. However, no information on whether such SMSes were fake or real was revealed. This is crucial information. It should be noted that past bomb attacks in cities like Pune, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Mumbai and Delhi in India too resulted from SMSes and other clues from seemingly different groups with no common connect or motives. Post the bomb blasts, it was discovered that one or two groups claimed responsibility for the attacks. This could have spurred the Home Ministry to issue a ban on SMSes and MMSes later on Friday.
The Times of India in its brief editorial asked the police to act against those spreading rumours. Strangely, editorial read more like an appeal and seemed to indicate that the paper was clueless about what was happening. But a blog by one the paper’s senior editors looks at the situation more meaningfully. She talks about ToI field reporters being aware of cases of random harassment against against North Easterners. “….being slapped, beaten up, verbal abuse, strangers barging into their homes and asking them to get out; landlords, fearing trouble, asking them to vacate their PGs etc…” the blog also mentions how the stabbing of a Tibetean student near Mysore was hushed up as a case of mistaken identity by the police. Such perspective, if carried by the main paper, could have helped readers.
Many reports such as those by The Hindu, The Deccan Chronicle, Rediff and The Hindustan Times mentioned the government’s intention to monitor social media sites to prevent any rumours from spreading through them. However, no reports clarified the action taken on prior allegations of social media being responsible for creating the current situation. Some such inflammatory videos continue to remain on YouTube such as this one by Al Jazeera titled Bodo Ethnic Cleansing in Assam that show people running helter skleter even as a burning tyre is hurled at them.
Considering the recent stand- off between the government and social media entities like Google, LinkedIn and others, over the issue of social media censorship, what can the government realistically do about such situations? Also how will they distinguish between fabricated and real life videos given the limited time to act?
A report by the First post indicated that rightwing supporters such as Tajinder Bagga and other were using social media to extend their support to the North East community in Bangalore – at the cost of sending inflammatory tweets such as “Fatwa issued by Local Muslims to North East Brother’s & Sister’s to leave Bangalore till 20 or ready for Riots”. How will the government deal with such people?
Also, it is common knowledge that the sheer size and scale of social media make it impossible for anyone to monitor. What specific steps would the government take in trying to accomplish this vigil? No details were provided.
By and large the media’s coverage of this issue has been very basic with various media establishments choosing to play safe. While it is commendable to disseminate timely information, reporters should also embark on fact finding to tie up the loose ends in their reports and provide more meaningful perspectives- something the bloggers seems to be doing a tad better.  
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