A week in which a reporter and the Solicitor General failed

Empathy is the cornerstone of journalism

A report, “Death in Goa: woman alleges that daughter was murdered” (May 26), failed to adhere to journalistic standards in reporting about people with different sexual orientations. For nearly a decade, various journalistic organisations have been striving to create a culture where there is fair, accurate and inclusive reporting of the life stories and concerns of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer or questioning (LGBTQ) people. The focus of the guidelines on reporting the LGBTQ community is to create journalistic standards to not only treat LGBTQ people with fairness, integrity and respect, but also ensure that they are not stigmatised and victimised by society.

Raising fundamental questions

Dr. Joy Muthipeedika, a neurologist from Kochi, was disappointed with the report as it quoted only one source despite the controversial circumstances that led the death of the activist. He wrote: “It is a clear affront to the LGBTQ community which has been battling stigma and the violence of conversion therapy since long. By publishing the misrepresentation of the post-mortem report from the side of the oppressors and simultaneously suppressing the voice of the deceased, your reporter has contributed to the further demonisation of the LGBTQ community in India. Let me remind you that India no longer criminalises the community. It is unfortunate that your newspaper with its long history of defending democracy has, however inadvertently, supported narrow, vicious, and violent social reaction.”

Academic J. Devika of the Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram, was equally appalled at the way in which the staff reporter reported the death of the young woman. She listed out some key information, all in the public domain, that the reporter failed to see: one, the young girl was identified with the LGBTQ community; two, she left home following conversion therapy; three, it left her, a budding wrestler, a physical wreck; and four, the post-mortem confirmed suicide. Ms. Devika wondered what prompted the staff reporter to merely restate the version of the young woman’s family, whom she unambiguously referred to as her “oppressors”. There were similar letters raising fundamental ethical questions.

The readers are right and the reporter is wrong. The solution to this quagmire does not lie in removing the story — even with a disclaimer — as that would amount to tampering with the archives. What is required is an exhaustive follow-up report that respects the dignity of the LGBTQ community, and more vigilant gate-keeping by the desk.

Bearing witness

Meanwhile, the Solicitor General of India added three more terms to the growing list of derogatory epithets to describe professionals committed to informing the citizenry. On May 28, during the Supreme Court hearing of the suo motu case regarding the plight of migrant labourers, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta referred to journalists as “vultures”, “prophets of doom”, and “armchair intellectuals”. Apart from making these stunning observations, he also gave a terribly skewed picture of the celebrated photojournalist, Kevin Carter. Carter documented Apartheid excesses in South Africa and the famine in different parts of the continent, among other things. Instead of looking at credible sources of information to understand Carter’s contributions to journalism, his moral and ethical dilemmas, and his trauma of covering tragedy after tragedy in Africa, Mr. Mehta chose to borrow from a WhatsApp forward about the photojournalist. My column, “Lens of truth, lens of empathy” (April 4, 2016), dealt with the tragic life of the South African photographer. Fact-checking organisations such as AltNews exposed how the Solicitor General cited a false WhatsApp forward as a fact in the apex court.

Mr. Mehta should know that journalism has three inalienable components: bearing witness, empathy or humanity, and holding power to account. Photojournalism is one of the finest tools to bear witness because it brings home the cruel nature of our reality, shakes a society out of its deep slumber, and forces those in power to act and redeem themselves. In fact, the suo motu case regarding the plight of India’s migrant workers would not have happened if photojournalists were not witness to their long and painful journey.

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Printable version | Jul 10, 2020 3:42:11 PM |

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