Reportage on important events and issues has repeatedly been biased, incomplete or completely unethical.

Voices Thursday, April 16, 2015 - 05:30
  While parrying questions on the ‘communal’ image of the NDA government on NDTV, Union Finance Minister, and the government’s chief English media trouble-shooter, Arun Jaitley, made an important point about what is a deep rot within mainstream news reporting. We jump the gun, and then walk away from the run. And we love to take a stand before all the facts emerge. Speaking in the context of the recent church attacks, Jaitley says that of the two cases in Delhi and one each in West Bengal and Mumbai, none of them were a case of a majority community’s concerted attack on churches, as portrayed by the initial media coverage of the issue. He asks, “The velocity with which you reported this initially, have you reported the factually position, telling the people of India? The fact is that you have not done it.” There have been other incidents, like the one in Jabalpur, which paint a communal picture. Even in the incidents mentioned by Jaitley, the investigations have not been closed. But as he points out, the media did not report the follow up or the arrests with same fervour as the attack itself. This is not an isolated case. Reportage on important events and issues has repeatedly been biased, incomplete or completely unethical. When the unclear but possibly sensational facts of a news story are emerging, we are shouting from the roof tops. But when the boring truth emerges later, it just stops being news. TV channels drop the story, newspapers bury it in the inner pages and the Twitter trends vanish. TV news is perhaps the worst offender on another account, an ‘editorial stand’ is taken on the issue almost immediately, and that becomes the story, not the facts. In January 2013, there were media reports of a woman being raped and thrown out of a moving car in Bhatinda. Close on the heels of the tragic Nirbhaya Delhi rape, news coverage of this case on TV was bombastic. The whole country was shamed, the police and Punjab government under immense public pressure created by the media. Some journalists however were sceptical, but no one bothered to wait for the full facts to emerge, or even check existing ones. The very next day it turned out that it was a false charge. TV channels simply dropped the story and moved on. More recently, the story of Rohtak’s ‘brave hearts’ met with the same fate. The two girls who were celebrated as examples of woman empowerment were later found to fail a lie detector test. Several other such video of them beating up men were also uploaded. While TV channels and newspapers did report the facts which emerged later, it was no match to the initial hysteria. In February this year, a church in Mangalore was attacked by miscreants. The incident was immediately given a communal flavour. But in early March, police arrested a former employee of the church who accepted to have broken the glass panes of church due to differences with the management over his salary.  Apart from The New Indian Express, no other mainstream media organization seems to have reported the arrest. Even in the Badaun rape case, when the CBI later found no evidence of rape or murder, crime reporters who were reporting on story tell us that newsrooms toned down their coverage, or even questioned CBI report’s veracity rather than accepting they were not careful enough with their initial reporting. We aren’t just pointing fingers at others. We have fallen for misreporting too in our news aggregation. As Jaitley says, even if confirmed facts or clarifications are reported later, they are seldom with the same ‘velocity’ as the initial outburst. Rather, why the initial exaggeration at all, especially when all the facts of a case are not clear? We are particularly prone to editorializing news as soon as it breaks. Charges of communalism, corruption and sexism are plastered on the protagonists even before the facts emerge. We don’t just stop with reporting facts, we need an ‘angle’ or a ‘spin’, narratives which often run contrary to reality. Why does this happen? There are some newsrooms or individual journalists which have an agenda. This is plain bias which makes way into reportage. The more prevalent reason though is that spins, angles and sensationalist slants are easy to come up with. Ground reporting, reconfirming facts and reporting with nuance is a difficult job. Journalists are either not capable of quality reportage, or the pressures of breaking news and deadlines push them too hard and they succumb to those pressures. One of the few cases in which a news organization took enormous effort to find the truth behind media reports was the story of a sadhvi getting reportedly raped in West Bengal. We do not see larger media narratives being challenged in similar fashion regularly. Perhaps this is a wake-up call for media organizations to buck up and pay more attention to their reportage. We should question if we need to create narratives and take editorial stands, especially when all facts of a story have not emerged. We are already quite far down the slippery slope, let’s try and climb back before we hit the ground and crash.
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