Journalistic norms during communal violence

That the communal violence in Delhi is still claiming lives is an indication of the total breakdown of governance in the national capital. The editorial in The Hindu pointed out two matters of grave concern: credible accounts of the failure of the police and the Union government’s move to shield the law-enforcing agency from judicial scrutiny.

As the riots were raging, there were journalistic questions too. Readers wanted to know how the ‘unspoken media rule’ that reporters should not mention the religion of victims of violence came into existence. Why are communities involved in the riots referred to as “minority” and “majority”? Is there a social media policy in media organisations that governs the social media posts of employee-journalists? Can readers make a distinction between an observation posted by a journalist and the views of the news organisation where he or she works?

The test of time for good reporting

My column, “Evolving norms for reporting communal violence” (September 23, 2013), after the Muzaffarnagar riots in Uttar Pradesh spelt out how the norms for reporting riots evolved over time, since the Partition of India. During riots, government agencies speak of ‘restraint’ in reporting, which is a euphemism for self-censorship. Journalists who bear witness to violence realise that neither silence nor exaggeration is the answer. They struggle to find the appropriate language to report loss, which will not perpetuate a stereotype.

In 2010 the Press Council of India published a revised ‘Norms of Journalistic Conduct’ but the guidelines did not take into account the subsequent growth of social media. There is one rule that has stood the test of time for good reporting: “While reporting news with regard to communal riots, the media should refrain from publishing/telecasting pictures of mangled corpses or any other photographic coverage which may create terror, or revulsion or ignite communal passion among people.” Graphic coverage is seen as voyeuristic reportage and editors do not encourage it.

In the light of the Delhi riots, I think some readers are conflating two different sets of reporting in this newspaper: protests over the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) and the Delhi riots. There has been extensive reporting in this newspaper about those who oppose the CAA as well as those who support it. The newspaper consciously refrained from characterising the protesters — either for or against the Act — by their religion. The protests drew from various sections of society and the reports reflected this.

However, when violence erupted and there was systematic targeting of a particular community, the newspaper named the community that was being victimised. The Press Council’s guidelines ask journalists to avoid giving community-wise figures of the victims of a communal riot. The aim is to avoid any writing that has the potential to exacerbate trouble. But when social media is used to inflame violence, journalism is forced to counter the toxic propaganda by distinguishing the victims from the perpetrators. In journalism, the idea of being fair is to ensure that the victims get space to raise their grievances, and that false equivalences are not created where the perpetrators and victims are put on an equal footing in a misplaced notion of balance. The principle behind both the editorial decisions — not naming and naming the communities — is to minimise harm and not strengthen the violent forces.

Social media policy

On the question of social media policy for journalists, there are some news organisations that have come up with binding rules. Some have suggested guidelines. The vexatious question is how to determine what is the individual freedom of the journalist and how it sometimes impacts the reputation of the news organisation.

The American Society of News Editors (ASNE) has come up with 10 important takeaways for journalists using various social media platforms. Some of them are: “Traditional ethics rules still apply online, assume everything you write online will become public, break news on your website, not on Twitter and beware of perceptions.” Every journalist should heed ASNE’s caution: “Reporters should act the same way online as they would in person. They shouldn’t say anything they wouldn’t want to see on the front page of their newspaper, and they shouldn’t post anything that would embarrass them personally or professionally or their organization.”

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Printable version | Apr 13, 2021 7:59:28 PM |

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