As part of our #TalkSafety campaign, we interviewed senior journalist and NWMI member, Ammu Joseph, on what good media coverage should look like.

Swathis murder and media We must not confuse public interest with what interests the public
Voices Media and Gender Friday, July 01, 2016 - 13:25

From one of the first headlines after Swathi’s murder speculating about a love affair, to rumour mongering on social media about the religious identity of the murder, the case has stirred a debate on media coverage of sensitive issues, especially gender violence. As part of our #TalkSafety campaign, we interviewed senior journalist and NWMI member, Ammu Joseph, on what good media coverage should look like in such a case

There is a lot of speculation in the Swathi murder case, about her relationships, about her character, about her murder, and the motive for the crime. While both mainstream and social media are doing it, a lot of it is driven by some right wing websites that are coming up with 'theories'. How does all this affect public perception, and how does it affect the case itself?

Speculation appears to have become the order of the day in journalism in recent times.  High profile television news anchors are often seen pushing and prodding panelists to speculate about the breaking news of the day, whatever it may be, apparently unconcerned about whether or not there is any factual basis to their comments and statements. With social media increasingly influencing – if not determining – the professional news agenda, the pressure on journalists to keep up with – if not surpass – trending rumours and amateur hypotheses is all the greater.  When a young woman is involved in a shocking event imaginations evidently go wild.  Add caste or communal prejudice to the mix and the story turns into a crusade that has almost nothing to do with the actual event. 

So it is not surprising that much of the reporting on the brutal, gruesome murder of S. Swathi in a public place is based on salacious conjecture, with some gratuitous references to jihad thrown in for good measure. But that doesn’t make the attempt to pass off speculation as journalism any less reprehensible.

One persistent problem is the tendency to confuse “the public interest” (which is supposed to guide ethical journalism) with “what interests the public.”  Gossip does interest much of the public but is it in the public interest for news organisations to purvey hearsay as fact?  

Almost every list of principles or guidelines on ethical journalism mentions the importance of respecting privacy and human dignity, minimising harm, and being sensitive to the needs and interests of the community/society/public.  Among the five core principles of journalism promoted by the Ethical Journalism Network is humanity:  “Journalists should do no harm. What we publish or broadcast may be hurtful, but we should be aware of the impact of our words and images on the lives of others.” The discipline of verification, which includes fact-checking, are also essential aspects of responsible journalism.

There is little evidence of any of this in much of the reporting on the Swathi case.  Take, for example, the Deccan Chronicle report on the day after the murder. The speculation in the headline  – “Relationship issue led to murder of Chennai Infosys techie in 6 minutes?” – is not even based on any assertion, let alone fact, anywhere in the text. The first sentence begins with an assumption – “In what is suspected to be a crime of passion involving a stalker…” – but not one that is subsequently substantiated or in any way justifies the headline:  surely stalking (if indeed there was any) does not amount to a relationship?

Do you see any difference in the way this case is being handled by the media, versus other cases of gender violence in recent times? There seems to be some restraint in what pictures are used and how the family is approached...

I don’t see much difference, although it is certainly a good thing that the media seem to have refrained from publishing gory photographs and harassing family members.  I remember writing about media coverage of the murder and possible rape of a young woman working in a company located in the Sipcot Information Technology Park in Siruseri, on the outskirts of Chennai, a couple of years ago – speculation, invasion of privacy, etc., were very much present then.

A few days ago, the death of a pioneering woman taxi driver in Bangalore, who was also an active member of the city’s LGBT community, gave rise to similar, unnecessary speculation at least in certain quarters.  For example, the Deccan Chronicle headline – “Affair gone sour: Bengaluru's first woman cab driver ends life” – was evidently based on statements from anonymous sources even though a named friend apparently “rubbished reports that Bharathi's broken relationship was the sole reason for the suicide.”  However, it was encouraging to note that the Huffington Post report was not only more sober and factual, but it included a box with the contact numbers of available helplines for anyone struggling with suicidal thoughts or attempts. 

This reminded me of a piece I read by an American crime reporter, which described the tough job of a crime reporter and highlighted the importance of “telling the stories of pain and sorrow that come with the beat.” According to her, “Every day you think, ‘Maybe this story will convince someone to reach out to a friend or co-worker in need. Maybe this will move a woman to leave a violent relationship, a drug addict to seek help, or a rape victim to come forward. Maybe it will lead someone to come forward with information about who committed this horrible crime.’ Good stories really can make a difference. And that is why no matter how horrible the crime, no matter how sad, reporters can't stop writing these stories. Stories change lives, they give voices to the voiceless and, most importantly, they remind all of us of our humanity.”  She wrote that she hoped “most journalists are similarly motivated, and that they are not covering crime stories because they are ‘cheap and easy’ to tell.” I suppose that’s something crime reporters need to ask themselves:  what is the purpose of telling these stories?

A lot of media discourse is centred on lack of CCTV cameras at the station, and the lack of police personnel at the time of the murder. How can media talk critically about safety in such a case, without dumbing down the issue?

The focus on CCTV cameras and policing has become routine even though, as I keep pointing out, it’s a rare crime – at least in India – that has been solved thanks to CCTV footage.  In fact, in the one case in Bangalore in which the perpetrator was clearly caught on camera (attacking a woman in an ATM kiosk) he was still at large two years later and remains so, as far as I know.  It is obviously impossible for the police to be everywhere in our huge, densely populated cities, let alone rural areas.  To really address issues of safety the media need to turn to experts and figure out what, if anything, can make a difference.

In this case – and many others – the apathy and reluctance to get involved of the general public is also a factor to be seriously explored.  Of course, here the attack was evidently sudden and quick, but surely some people could have tried to catch the man as he walked or even ran away on the tracks?  And surely it was wrong to leave the girl lying bleeding on the platform instead of trying to save her life by either announcing for a doctor on the spot or quickly shifting her to the nearest hospital (if the station had no medical facilities)?

In the coverage of gender violence in general, what are the changes you would like to see, and what are the trends you don't want to see anymore?

A series of cases of sexual violence in 2012-13 sparked off a debate among journalists themselves on issues concerning media coverage of sexual violence in general, and rape in particular. The introspection has led to several attempts—by journalists or with their involvement—to evolve practical dos and don’ts that recognize the realities of reporting news in an ever more competitive media environment, but seek to promote ethical practice despite the undeniable, disagreeable pressures that most journalists, especially reporters, have to reckon with.  However, these dealt mainly with the media’s sins of commission.  I think the equally critical sins of omission need to receive more attention in the interests of justice in general, gender justice in particular and, ultimately, the necessary decline in the prevalence of such violence.  I’ve outlined some of these in my article on reporting rape (mentioned and linked above).  They could perhaps be applied (with some modification) to other forms of gender violence.

Lastly, the 'Five Simple Rules for Reporting Gender Violence' were formulated by journalists at a Prajnya workshop you led. Would you like to say something about how these media guidelines might be used when such an incident takes place?

I think such guidelines are important and need to be more widely circulated and discussed, both in journalism schools and media workplaces.  But what is more important if they are to serve any practical purpose is that issues of journalistic standards and ethics need to be more widely recognised and accepted as critical professional matters.  And, of course, ethical practice needs to be actively encouraged and advocated by editors and other media decision-makers.  At the moment these questions seem to be seen as peripheral to the main business of media coverage.

The other day, while talking to a young man pursuing a media degree from a well-known Indian university, I asked about the courses he had taken during his first year in the course. He mentioned one on media ethics and I asked him for more details.  It turned out that the course material used for this one-semester course comprised notes put together by the teacher.  I mentioned a book and some websites on the subject that he could perhaps take a look at.  Pat came the answer:  “Oh, but that course is over.”  I smiled and said sure, but you will continue to encounter ethical issues as you go along.  I don’t know if he was convinced.  But I do believe it is very important for ethics to be made central to media education and practice.  Only then will journalists be able to internalise a sense of ethics and recognise the ethical questions and dilemmas involved in various aspects of their work.  Only then will they think of remembering and consulting such guidelines in the course of their work.

This article is a part of a collaborative effort between The News Minute, Prajnya and PCVC to raise awareness about gender violence.

Prajnya is a non-profit centre for research, public education and networking on women's rights. gender violence, and women's history.

The International Foundation for Crime Prevention and Victim Care (PCVC) is a non-profit organization that was set up in response to a need for a support agency for victims and survivors of domestic abuse. Our services include crisis management, legal advocacy, support and resource services.

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