The case of attack by hooligans (I refrain to use the term Moral Police. I fear that the term legitimizes their actions) on a group of youngsters who were partying at a resort at Mangalore has left people outraged across the country. The incident has followed close on the heels of the public molestation of a young girl at Guwahati. One of the main strings connecting the two incidents is that both these acts have been captured on the cameras of mainstream television news channels.
The incidents have stirred debates on various topics ranging from the ridiculous to the religious. From media’s favorite topics of dressing sense, culture, modernity, night-life, love-jihad and so on, the usual suspects (experts) on Television have discussed a lot. But one topic that finds very little discussion on the news channels (for obvious reasons) is the role of journalists in covering these incidents. But there is a lot of talk regarding it in other sections of the media, and in the social media too.
There are a couple of questions that come to our minds. Most common question is whether journalists are ethically right in capturing such audacious events? Many denounce the coverage and broadcast of such visuals in the very first place. There is this growing public talk on “journalists should be humans first.” Second question comes from the fact that the journalists who covered both these incidents have either been arrested or summoned for questioning by the police in connection to the respective incidents. Hence there is a worrying question: Are journalists and media houses abetting crime in the quest for creating sensational news-stories?
In the journalism parlance there is a segment of news-coverage known as the spot news. It is a coverage that takes place spontaneously, without any preparation or prior-knowledge. Most of the live crime-beat stories and breaking-news alerts fall within this category. From my five years of experience in covering news photography for various publications in India, my view is that shooting spot-news per se is not wrong. Most often the image or the footage serves a larger social purpose. At times, the visuals could serve as an evidence in prosecution of the guilty and delivery of justice. I would like to bring to attention the iconic image(ironically) of Mumbai Terror Attack – The only photograph of Ajmal Kasab, the lone surviving terrorist of Mumbai terror attacks, that places him at the crime scene. The photographer (Sebastian D’Souza) showed immense courage to make this photograph.
There is no specific written code of ethics for journalists across the media industry. If there are ethical guidelines governing any journalist, then they are nothing but a sub-set of general human ethics. In the coverage of every news story, there is no clear line of separation of between what is to be done and what is to be avoided. What exists is a moral dilemma, and it must be resolved on a case-by-case basis.
Having said that, if we look back at the two incidents, we first need to know if the two incidents are spot news in the very first place. One has to analyze every bit of evidence right from the footage shot by the journalists to the eye-witness statements, to arrive at the answer.
The Guwahati incident, as we know of today, is speculated to have begun spontaneously after an altercation between the victim and her alleged molesters. The journalist who was passing in the vicinity is known to have alerted the camera crew after seeing the events unfold. But, there is allegation that after arriving at the crime scene(a spot news), the journalist in question encouraged the molesters to go ahead with their actions for shooting dramatic news footage. If found guilty, then he must be punished.
When one sees the footage of the Mangalore incident, it is alarming to notice that the coverage of the news began even before the attack took place. A Mangalore-centric news website had uploaded a video which showed the attackers outside the resort (scene of crime) minutes before they went on a rampage inside the resort. The video also showed at least one more camera-person shooting the incident. So, was it not a Spot-News story? Was it an orchestrated attack? Were the journalists from local TV news channels invited by the attackers to cover the incident for publicity? If yes, then why didn’t they inform the Police about it?
One of journalists who covered the Mangalore incident has denied having received any invitation from the attackers. He has written his response in a Kannada blog, wherein he mentions that he was alerted by a source about the possible attack. He further writes that he called a police official’s cell phone, but received no response.
There needs to be a thorough investigation into the claims of the journalists and media houses on their role in the coverage of this incident. The RAW footage of the crime scene needs to be examined and analyzed too. We know that journalism in many sections of the mainstream media has turned yellow and revenue models dictate the content in most media houses. There have been many cases in the past where media has been alleged to have corroborated with subjects of the story in fabricating news. One just hopes that this time the media hasn’t gone too far and scarred the lives of youngsters in search of a sensational news-item. If media houses are found guilty, then there is a need of a severe punishment to act as a deterrent for the future.
(An edited version of this opinion piece appeared in The Alternative.)