Tuesday, June 7, 2011

An analysis of the media coverage in the 26/11 attacks

The attack on the night of 26/11/2008 on the financial capital of India , Mumbai, was a brazen act of urban terrorism. Ten terrorists owing allegiance to Pak based terror group Lashkar E Toiba, entered the city via the Arabian Sea. A blood bath was unleashed across the prominent landmarks of the city viz, the Taj Mahal hotel, the Trident hotel and CST station.

As soon as news of the attack spread like wild fire across the country and consequently across the world, a tug of war ensued amongst all the leading news channels of the country to relay a minute by minute footage of what was happening. Crews of leading media channels, national and international were seen camping near prominent landmarks of the city where the terrorists were holed up and were fighting pitched battles with the security forces. The action in the foreground was being relayed live on television screens across the world. The terrorists, who had come fully prepared for the mayhem that was to ensue, were also aware of the fact that the whole action would be captured live on camera and would also be relayed across to our neighbour country. Their handlers across the border could see live what was happening in Mumbai and based on the visuals which were being streamed on their screens, they were issuing directions to their foot soldiers in the city. The Indian security forces had a tough task on their hands. On one hand they had to battle the terrorists and on the other, they had to prevent the media persons from flashing their cameras, which was leading to a leakage of vital information. This was media sensationalism at its worst.

In a sad sense, it can be said that the media helped the handlers of the terrorists to a large extent by showing them the live action which was taking place on the ground. As innocent lives were being lost and property worth crores of rupees was destroyed, the happening around was just another piece of “breaking news” for the media channels. This brings us to a few questions which need to be answered seriously by the journalistic fraternity. The first is, has the media lost its sensitivity? Secondly, can we call this ethical journalism? Thirdly, in a democratic country like India, what role the state can play in order to draw a line between responsible journalism and sensational news mongering?

The media, in a democratic state like India, plays a very important role in bringing an unbiased and truthful version of events as they happen on the ground. However, with the mushrooming of several new channels and news publications, there is a race for garnering high TRPS and revenues accrued from advertisements. Journalists and anchors on popular TV talks shows hosted by prominent TV channels, consider themselves analysts and in many cases, do not even allow the panelist on the show to complete his statement, imposing their will themselves.

In order to govern the actions that need to be followed by television news channels while covering news of the magnitude of the Mumbai terror attacks, a set of guidelines have been formulated by the News Broadcasters Association. Even the News Broadcasting Standards Redressal Authority has issued guidelines on how an impactful event like this should be reported.

Also, the events unfolding in the course of the attacks showed an unemotional and inhumane side of the journalists. As innocent lives were being claimed across the city at locations like CST Railway Station, the Chabad house of Colaba and Taj Mahal Hotel, microphones and mikes were being held in front of people and they were asked to convey their reaction. This should be condemned as ridiculous and insensitive. No doubt, the media has to report the truth and report it in its entirety, without obliterating any facts. However, the fact remains that during times like this, when people have lost their loved ones and emotions are running high, the media persons covering the event have to exercise a little restraint.

In a democratic and constitutional country like India, the media is known as the fourth pillar of democracy. A lot of responsibility and expectations lie on its shoulder to analyse and disseminate news in a correct format. However, it is during times like this that the competency and conscience of the media fraternity is put to test. The problem is not that we do not have competent and experienced journalists. The problem lies in the fact that journalism has become highly commercialized today. Rather than reporting the truth, news channels are besotted and dictated by the pursuance of commercial obligations. The race to show a breaking news often leads to a biased and distorted version of the news.

India is one of the largest democracies in the world. We have always nurtured and protected the freedom of the press. Duing the pre independence days, it was the newspapers which reflected the views and the dreams of a post independence India which would be free through the sacrifices and the blood of several freedom fighters and martyrs. Let us cherish that freedom. Let us not make a blot on the independence which the discipline enjoys. A very great difference between our country and our neighboring country (which perpetrated this dastardly act) is a strong and vibrant media. Let us maintain that vibrancy. Let us bring in a responsible and a professionally ethical sense of journalism in our country. Journalism should not remain restricted to mere breaking news and TRPs, but break through its shackles in bringing an unbiased and undistorted version of the news as it unfolds.

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