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An ounce of image, a pound of performance

Media ethics is an evolving field but in a country like ours, where the media — especially electronic — is still young and regulations are still in the pipeline, a lot has to be done to catch up with the more developed countries which are far ahead of us. However, while their ethical dilemmas are more conventional, ours defy imagination. SEVANTI NINAN examines the issue.

The big ethical issue that the Indian media faces today is "laziness".

WHEN Hindus vandalise Muslim places of worship and plant small statues of Hanuman in each of these mosques, what does the media do — tell it like it is? In a State that is already burning? Star News and Aaj Tak decided not to show these Hulladia Hanumans as they were called, in Gujarat last month, even though neither news channel has much of a reputation for restraint. The Gujarat Samachar however saw no reason not to report this. On March 1, 2002 it carried a front page box item which said, "Reaction of Godhra in Ahmedabad. Several Mosques and Dargahs Ravaged — Hanuman Idol installed after destroying mosque at Paldi. The new idol is named Hulladia Hanuman."

Pictures of these Hanumans were not hard to come by in Ahmedabad. Vendors were hawking them in front of the District Magistrate and District Commissioner's offices. Yet how many of them did you see carried in the much-maligned metropolitan press? The Indian Express did carry one day a picture of one of these Hanumans planted on the razed remains of a mosque.

The more developed countries are much more evolved in the area of media ethics. Our media is still young, our regulations still in the pipeline. But while their ethical dilemmas are more conventional, ours defy imagination. Just pick a few examples from Gujarat. Should TV and print report that a foetus was ripped from its mother's womb and then burnt? Should they report that people were electrocuted in a room by avenging mobs? Should they carry pictures of bodies in wells?

So what do we do about media ethics when all hell is breaking loose?

Gujarat's leading newspapers did not tie themselves into knots asking the questions that the rest of the media has been torturing itself with since the violence broke out. They went right ahead and took the decisions that they thought would endear them to the popular mood. On February 28, Gujarat Samachar carried photographs of the dead on the Godhra platform and the burning bogies, above its masthead. Its banner headline below the masthead said (translated), "Most barbaric and shameful incident of the country at Godhra station". And below that, "60 roasted in the train". A box item enshrined Bal Thackeray's by-now famous quote about Hindus cowering like dogs with tails between their legs.

Its rival Sandesh, while matching the photographs and the banner, was more graphic. It said bodies of the burnt victims were glued to each other. The paper bristled with horror stories. Inside it said that two mutilated bodies of young girls had been found, something its rival, Samachar, denied the next day in a three-column story. Later the editor of Sandesh would tell the Editor's Guild team which went to Gujarat to look at the role of the media, that he had a paper to sell, and a rival to out-manoeuvre. His paper's circulation during the month of massacre was up by 150, 000, he is reported to have told them. The Guild team was shown a letter of congratulations sent by the Chief Minister to some Gujarati newspapers, for their coverage. And of course, none of those asked for his resignation as the press in the rest of the country did.

While on the subject of media and massacre, let's hark back not to the Gulf War, which is held to be the first milestone in live conflict reporting, but to Tiananmen Square in 1989 which was believed to be a watershed moment in defining different roles for television and print journalism. "Television became the raw `news' and print became the analysis and research-based reservoir of facts. While newspapers used to set the news agenda for both television and print, that was reversed by the live shots from Beijing." (Turmoil at Tiananmen. A study of U.S. press coverage of the Beijing Spring of 1989, The Joan Shorenstein Barone Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, Harvard University, 1992)

The arrest of American actor Robert Blake ... the issue of "raw news".

In retrospect, though some Pulitzers were won for the memorable coverage there, it was found to have suffered from biases, and endangered those whom it featured. It set a pro-student framework for the coverage: there was not enough objectivity about the students' movement, and the not-so-positive aspects of it. The technology outpaced the journalism, which created some serious problems. Lopsided access created lopsided coverage. The use of new technology allowed the inclusion of misleading or irrelevant materials, including unverified rumours that were hard to check and resist in the competitive pressure to provide something new. Some Chinese sources who appeared in news reports suddenly found themselves in danger. They were identified by authorities.

We suddenly have as much or more media than many a First World country. We do not have the financial or intellectual resources to monitor or research what that media does on an ongoing basis. Two organisations based in Delhi have begun to do this. But compared to the depth of research in some other countries, what we do here only scratches the surface of possibility. Meanwhile, because we need a Parliamentary majority in a fragmented polity to pass it, media regulation, on the anvil since 1997, simply does not come.

Television in India is young. Everything major that happens is a first: first war, first riot, first hijacking. Newspaper journalism is not young. The rules for it have been set time and again. That did not faze some of the regional press in Gujarat. The print media's provocative role is not new for this country, the Press Council was referring to it even back in 1968, which is when the All India Newspaper Editor's Conference came up with its code for coverage during communal riots.

Media ethics is an evolving field. In the U.S., the Radio-Television News Directors Association has a code of professional ethics and practices that was first evolved in 1946. But its current version, updated in the year 2000, reflects changes in broadcast journalism across half a century.

So far, going live has been an exciting tool for Indian channels. Now we need to look at safeguards others have put in place. The ease with which TV can go live can create problems. Safeguards for reporting in times of crisis, such as hostage taking, have to also be put in place. Television endangers lives, if you don't handle it with care in crisis situations. But equally, it saves lives when you wield its power against anti-social elements. People in Ahmedabad who were trying to get the State to intercede effectively in the mayhem, have said repeatedly since that the television coverage which irked the Government so much, saved lives.

There will always be two perspectives on the extreme examples. The stunning Reuters photograph of a man pleading for his life to be spared was run on page one by some newspapers, Some thought it was provocative, many however thought it disturbed enough to shock people into a horrific realisation of what was going on.

Competition creates the need to produce something with shock value, something that will be remembered, something chat-pata so that people will tune in to your channel the next time around. Aaj Tak prides itself on having broken every major story since the attack on Parliament in December, ahead of its rival channels. It does not mind cocking a snook at conventional codes in the process. It surprised many with its decision to show the battered face of Delhi photographer Natasha Singh when she fell from the top floor of a hotel. It surprised them further when it ran clips from the film "Baazigar" to show how it could have happened. People within the channel say there has been unnecessary fuss: the clips were shown in response to viewers calling to say that the incident reminded them of the film, and that they took care to say that they were not suggesting that this is how it had happened.

Media is a very mixed blessing, and one that we have to learn to live with. Learning to live with it means the following: Recognise why you need to have it around. Free flow of information is a necessary safeguard in a democracy. Recognise that it increases your parenting responsibility. A journalist mother recently discovered that pictures and descriptions in some of the country's leading magazines (lying around prominently on the coffee tables of many homes) amount, without exaggeration, to soft porn.

Abroad, enough research has been done to show that watching too much disaster coverage can induce post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in children. You need to explain to a small child watching repeated footage of a plane crashing into a building that it is the same plane. Most repeated news is bad news. Create people's forums, which will interact with the media, and demand accountability from it.

The black sheep are few but far more noticeable. There were other newspapers in Gujarat, in Rajkot, Kutch and elsewhere, which acted proactively to try and defuse the situation as soon as the incident at Godhra happened. Kutch Mitra carried prominently the day after Godhra a statement from maulvis expressing distress and regret. Other papers chose not to carry it, though it would have helped to defuse the situation. The Daily Fulchhab in Rajkot organised a huge peace march. It also made it a point to include news, which demonstrated communal amity. The Saurashtra Samachar of Bhavnagar published a special supplement on March 2, in the midst of reports of arson and looting, devoted to the equality of all religions.

Given the volatile nature of society whose baser instincts are whipped up by incitement, the media has a pro-active job to do. There is mere ethics, and there is the broader responsibility to help create peace and restore a public conscience, which some would see as activism.

Finally, I think the big ethical issue that Indian media faces today is laziness. In a country with tremendous inequality, indifferent or poor governance, and worrying societal trends such as religious, ethnic and caste conflict, there is whole range of reporting that simply does not get done, because it means harder work, more news gathering expenses, and perhaps deploying more reporters on beats which don't exist today. The problems run deep, digging them up and exposing them for action is a thankless task. Much easier to fill pages with news-you-can-use, which targets your upwardly mobile city reader.

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