The importance of labelling hate crimes

Such crimes impact the social fabric of the country

September 23, 2019 12:05 am | Updated 04:25 pm IST

The office of the Readers’ Editor (RE) is a visible institutional framework “to improve accuracy, verification, and standards in the newspaper; and to strengthen bonds between the newspaper and its millions of print platform and online readers.”

This means the RE has to be an effective interlocutor between the newspaper and its readers and ensure a two-way communication. One of the tasks I have been performing is also to explain the rationale that governs the news judgment and the ethical framework that governs the editorial judgment of this newspaper on various contentious issues.

Last week, there was a front-page story headlined “ Four of Muslim family injured in attack at Aligarh railway station ”. Dushyant Kumar, a reader from Baraut, Uttar Pradesh, who gets the Mohali edition of the newspaper, felt that the headline was both misleading and communal. Oruganti Srinivas, an advocate from Visakhapatnam, discovered a design not just in the headline but also in the tone of the report. His argument was that the report cast a doubt as if the violence was instigated by the majority community in a communally sensitive city and felt that the report promoted enmity between two religious communities. K.R.A. Narasiah, who has often written in this newspaper, saw an anti-Modi streak in the story and its headline.

Conceptual frameworks

I would like to share some of the conceptual frameworks that define the daily practice of a newsroom, for, the overall ethos of the newspaper organisation informs its choices and its editorial judgment. That is the reason we find a multitude of methods in both reporting and in news processing among different news organisations. The content of a newspaper is organised by a principle called news hierarchy, which varies from publication to publication.

Some media scholars have argued that five different types of proximities determine news hierarchy: geographical proximity, temporal proximity, affective proximity, practical proximity, and utilitarian proximity. These often contending and contesting ideas are mediated to arrive at a consensus in news meetings where the final decision is taken about any story. This involves a few critical questions: Where should a news item be placed? Is it a front-page story or can it be in inside pages? What should be its length? Whether a story requires an explainer or not? Does it warrant an editorial?

The editorial team told me that they make a distinction between common crime and hate crime, and that common crime is covered in the inside pages while hate crime is elevated to the front page given its enormity and its impact on the social fabric of the country. The U.K. police have come up with an accessible definition of hate crime: “A hate crime is when someone commits a crime against you because of your disability, gender identity, race, sexual orientation, religion, or any other perceived difference.”

Realising the difference between crime in general and the toxic nature of hate crimes, the U.S. passed a special law called “The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009”. In a country where the First Amendment has given latitude to hate speech and offensive rhetoric, for instance to the utterances of the members of the Ku Klux Klan, the courts and the legislature in the form of both the Congress and the Senate have carved out notable, carefully drafted narrow exceptions to free speech which authorises prosecution for language deemed to fall out of bounds.

Long-term damage

The rise of hate crimes may be a product of our current polarised polity. As it has been pointed out in many learned articles and pieces of legislation, hate crimes inflict long-term emotional and societal damage, create additional fault lines, fracture communities, depress individuals to the point of self-harm and cannibalise the space for reconciliation and coexistence.

The editorial team and the reporter decided to go ahead with the story on the front page because they did manage to ascertain that the attack on the family of four in Aligarh railway station was indeed a hate crime. It is the duty of a newspaper not only to unambiguously distinguish hate crimes from other forms of breaking the law but also label them accurately. I would like to draw the attention of the readers to the July 17, 2018, observation of the Supreme Court of India, which came down heavily against the recurring hate violence, which it warned should not become the new normal.

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