This is no place for second-guessing and headline hunting

There are human beings here - dead murdered alive and missing
Voices Media Sunday, July 24, 2016 - 18:35

The weekend has been a terrible one and it is not yet over. Munich, Donald Trump’s speech, Kabul, Kashmir, the missing IAF aircraft – enough to report on but even more importantly, events that bring critical lessons for us in the media. Times of stress and pain ironically are also opportunities for us in the media to stop and question why we are journalists, what is our role and finally, what if we weren’t there.  The answer to the last is easy – life would go on.

Two events are on my mind as I write this post - the shooting in the German city of Münich and the disappearance of an Indian aircraft over the Bay of Bengal. I pick them because they are tangentially comparable in real-time tension and responsibilities. In a newsroom, editors have limited time to put stories out. This places a huge responsibility on us especially in times of Twitter and Facebook which has made just about everyone a reporter. An entire system (local, regional, national and international in many languages) kicked into place in Germany to deal with irresponsible social media activists. 

Responsible journalists err on the side of caution – there will always be time to outrage, but the window to engage is a small, fleeting and onerous one. In that instant, we are engaging not just with our readers, but also with people who are affected by what we are writing about, be it a shooting or the disappearance of an aircraft. Within hours of the plane’s disappearance in India experts said the plane was a flying coffin and others questioned the meteorological department. There were some who asked if the plane was air-worthy. We in the media were part of this nonsense.

How easy it is to sit in the comfort of safety and rattle others – families of those in that plane as well as hundreds of others whose work tool it is. These are people who work with these machines for a living, people who have no access to made-to-measure VVIP helicopters? One television expert went to the extent of announcing that “each and every aspect of the plane’s disappearance must be investigated” implying that there is some sinister design.

The Münich shooting was unfolding at about the same time last Friday as search and rescue operations continued for the aircraft. There was panic, fear and uncertainty on the streets of the city which shut down almost as quickly as the first shots reverberated. I watched the media very closely. Yes, there was fear mongering on some micro-blogging sites but it calmed down soon enough. Nobody was second-guessing the authorities and there was no embarrassing expertise on display. The same discipline was respected during the Nice attacks – no doubling up as experts as operations were on, no adding fuel to fire even for the otherwise shrill French media.

Interestingly and unsurprisingly enough, during the Münich shooting, bigotry and hatred came most from Indians in India and those living abroad, especially in North America. Both went overboard on twitter calling out the shooter as an Islamist radical and held out fears that German Chancellor Angela Merkel would now get a taste of what India was experiencing. When it was finally established that the shooter was a young German of Iranian origin there were no apologies. These are the same kind of people who would have walked past the bleeding-to-death Swati on that fateful morning in the Chennai station only to pour their grief and advise swiftly on Twitter and Facebook – journalists included.

If it doesn’t already exist, there should be a First Check List kit prominently displayed in all newsrooms much like a First Aid kit or fire extinguishers. The latter will also be a daily reminder and metaphor for what our line of work is. The pace of reporting if nothing else makes this indispensable. We at The News Minute had a system to fall into place during the floods in Chennai in December 2015. It was neither planned nor designed, but was home grown as the vastness of the calamity grew and people started turning to us for verified information. Discipline, devotion and service became stepping-stones even as we were trying to find the next patch of dry ground in every sense of the word. There are no short cuts in a metier like ours where trust – a word none can define but all understand – is a daily and an endless beginning.

Reporting on the daylight murder of Swati a young lady in Chennai making her way to work like millions of others brought different issues. It was a telling example of a rather intriguing Indian trait where we know so little, we talk so much, we hear so poorly and we advise so readily. Beyond the horror and disbelief was the nauseous and self-righteous commentary of people whose only interest was to raise doubt and disappear. Where silence was necessary, there was cacophony and disrespect. When there was need to raise a storm and a din to save Swati, there was silence. People saw her die, took the next train and went to work. Let us not forget that she lay bleeding to death for two hours through the rough and tumble of an Indian railway station during rush hour.

What use is journalism if we do not adequately serve the society we live in? Sounds simple enough but it is not easy to achieve and sustain on a daily basis. Good journalism will never go out of fashion as long as we remember that there are people out there who trust us – a trust we must earn daily. Experts can wait. 

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