Indian TV News Channels draw flak for "irresponsible" reporting of Mumbai Attack
Samarth Pathak Hardnews
For 60 nightmarish hours last week, Mumbai burnt in a blaze of terror. 60 hours, which claimed nearly 200 innocent lives as the city went under siege in the most audacious terrorist strikes to have ever taken place in India. 60 hours, for which our forces were engaged in a virtual war as terrorists wreaked havoc. And 60 hours, for which Indians, irrespective of their religious or regional identities, were glued to their TV sets as news channels went on a frenzy to gain TRP's under the guise of 'Breaking News".
According to Indiantelevision.com, ratings of most channels recorded a significant growth last week due to the live non stop coverage of the Mumbai siege. NDTV 24x7 got 30 per cent of viewership, thus making it the highest gainer amongst the English channels. Times Now got 28 per cent, while CNN-IBN received 24 per cent ratings during the four day period from November 26 to November 30. Amongst the Hindi channels, Aaj Tak ruled the roost with 23 per cent share of the viewership, while India TV got 21 per cent ratings. Undoubtedly, the channels gained what they desired - TRP's. But they lost respect in the bargain.
All ethics of journalism took a backseat as reporters strived to outdo each other to grab eyeballs and boost ratings. Concerned viewers who tuned in to get the updates on the vicious massacre had no choice but hear reporters 'shouting' out the news as the saga unfolded. Breaking all security cordons, and putting not only theirs but also the lives of other security personnel in jeopardy, members of the media bloated in self importance as their reports went on-air. Reporting live, many journalists spiced up their coverage by speaking in a panic stricken tone, which became 'the' formula to catch the viewer's attention. Many reporters from the Hindi electronic media resorted to stunts like lying on the ground to relay the news, which was clearly unnecessary as their very own camera crew were standing! A reporter from India TV had a close shave when a live grenade exploded barely meters away from where he was reporting. Instead of realising the immense danger he and his other colleagues in the media were in, this reporter became the 'braveheart' of India TV as the channel's scroll aired his bravery and commitment to relay the bit by bit news to the viewers.
Even a senior correspondent like Barkha Dutt of NDTV has drawn flak for her hysterical coverage. Worse, she has been criticized for hyping the tragedy by posing insensitive questions to those affected by the attack. "I felt quite repulsed by her 'out of breath' style of reporting. Good journalists never betray their emotions, and are objective. But this was clearly not the case with Barkha Dutt's reporting. On many occasions, I felt she was about to cry, and I think it was just to capture the public's sympathy. Even the manner in which she posed her questions to the worried relatives of the hostages standing outside the hotel were quite insensitive. Asking someone 'how do you feel when you think of your husband stuck inside with the terrorists?' is just not done." Subodh Kumar, a professor of Political Science at the University of Delhi told Hardnews.
Barkha was rattled by the scathing criticism and was forced respond on ndtv.com, "In the 72 hours that we stood on reporting duty, not once were we asked to move further away. We often delayed live telecasting of images that we thought were sensitive so as to not compromise the ongoing operation. Not once, were we asked by anyone in authority, to switch our cameras off, or withhold images. Also, every interview of a relative that was aired on any of my shows, was done so with the full consent and participation of the people speaking. In every case, it was their choice to share and to speak. And their voices were in fact the real tragedy and needed to be heard and told."
The media has also been widely criticised for not exercising restraint while giving details of the operations conducted by the forces. There are two theories doing rounds. One is that the terrorists were in constant touch with their masters through blackberry phones, who gave them updates on the positions of the commandos as conveyed by the media. This was backed by the Chief of Navy in a recent press conference. The second theory, propounded by bloggers, many of whom were also eyewitnesses to the siege, is that the terrorists got all the updates through the TV channels themselves, as the cable connections at the Taj had not been disconnected. This, however, is not confirmed officially. Yet, there is no doubt that the TV channels disclosed a lot of crucial information on the strategy employed by the commandos. A serving officer in the Indian Air Force told Hardnews on the condition of anonymity: "Almost all TV cameras zoomed onto a helicopter which was surveying the entire area, and many reporters incorrectly stated that it was being used to intimidate the terrorists. Also, the positions of the forces on top of the roof were revealed by the over excited reporters, thus taking away the element of surprise vital to any operation." In a recent press conference, Chief of Navy Admiral Sureesh Mehta also blasted the media for their irresponsible reporting. He said, "Do you really have to give minute-by-minute coverage? Media is an enabling instrument, but today it is a disabling instrument."
While the reporters out there at the scene of action were clearly messing around with public sentiment, the "news readers' or "anchors" were no better. Arnab Goswami of Times Now, who anchored for virtually the entire 60 hours, could not hide his rage as his voice often quivered with anger at the terror strike. He was short on objectivity and contributed in feeding unnecessary jingoism. Rajdeep Sardesai of CNN-IBN stated on air that there had been fresh rounds of firing at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus on the Mumbai siege. This turned out to be a rumour, but his decision to go on air without get an authoritative corroboration shows him in poor light. Ironically, his bloomer came just a few days after he had taken over as the head of India's Editor's guild, an organization devoted to upholding ethics in media. Though he later apologised, many feel that he should have been more responsible.
The Hindi TV channels did even worse. India TV aired exclusive interviews with two 'terrorists', Shahadullah and Imran Babar, while they were wreaking havoc at the Taj and Nariman House. "Giving free air time and publicity to terrorists is unpardonable. That is precisely what they desire. Giving them their shot at fame only motivates them. To add to that, our anchors asked stupid questions like 'How many people do you wish to target?' and 'From which country are you from?' As if they would actually confess. The lack of perspective and depth in many of our anchors is shocking." says Shom Bannerji, a freelancer. Aaj Tak magnified the terror even more as their anchors spoke in a haunting tone. 'I sincerely feel that this particular tone of voice can also have a considerable impact on the minds of the viewers. Is it really necessary to speak like that? Look at the newsreaders at CNN and BBC. Even during the 9/11 and the London bombings, they remained calm in their composure. They gave out facts, and did not express their own personal opinions. That is journalism." adds Shom.
Inaccuracy, which is a sin in journalistic jargon, also ruled the roost. Many reporters deemed fit to call anyone in uniform as an "NSG commando". A senior news director from a reputed TV channel said on the conditions of anonymity, "I was shocked when I heard the reporters there saying 'NSG commandos are now entering the hotel', while the visuals contained shots of the Rapid Action Force and members of the Anti Terror Squad. I know all this because I myself have served in the forces for some time. This clearly shows the lack of knowledge our reporters have about the forces." Reports of 'final assaults' were also claimed by many journalists, which actually took place 30 hours later. Just how, and who gave them the authority to proclaim this, we will never know.
Media has also received brickbats for showing its bias towards the 'elite' class, by focusing on the operations at the Taj, and not on those killed at CST and VT strikes. Sociologist Prabha Dayal opines, "The media always revolves around the power centers, and hence is usually pro-elite. Since most corporates have a stake in the media, journalists have lost their freedom to money and advertisers. That is why the Taj Palace hotel, which is frequented by the creamy layer of the society and foreigners, remained at centre stage. Journalists would say that they covered it because the operation was still on. But what about now? I do not know the name of even a single person who died at CST or VT. Is their life less important than those who died at Taj? It is a bitter pill, which the aam junta has to swallow. To the media, it is the top strata of the society who matter the most, so all the jazz about giving 'voice to the voiceless' is just a farce."
One of the cardinal rules of reporting a conflict is to relay the facts without editorialising and opinionating the content. This becomes all the more important while covering a terrorist strike of such magnitude, because it becomes the responsibility of the press to calm the masses and keep things under control. Yet, it seems that in the ever competitive world of the media, the rules of the game have been done away with. The need of a code of conduct, is hence gaining acceptance. As the fourth estate, the media is required to be socially responsible and a watchdog of the democracy, and not merely a money spinning machine. Freedom of expression, which the media swears by, also involves being accountable to the masses. But in the present day scenario, the words of Juvenal seem to come true- 'Who will guard the guards?'