THE issue in question is the media coverage of the 67-hour Mumbai terrorist attacks in 2008, especially by the 24-hour television news channels that drew a bulk of the criticism for being 'sensationalistic' and 'overtly dramatic'.
At the outset, we must understand three key aspects:
- That the 24-hour television news bandwagon in India is relatively new. In India "there is an increasing marketisation of news", Thussu (2005) argues, and "new TV channels have become clones of the US-model of market invasion, susceptible to the same kind of market pressures", according to Thussu as quoted in Rao (2008).
- That terrorism is not something new in India. It did not begin on September 26, 2008. It has been an almost permanent feature in India, especially in the Jammu and Kashmir region in the north. India nearly went to war with neighbouring Pakistan after the 1999 Kargil conflict, when Pakistani soldiers and Kashmiri militants infiltrated Indian positions on the de-facto border between the two states. (Globalsecurity.org, 2010).
- But on November 26, 2008, terrorists attacked a railway station, a hospital, a popular cafe, a Jewish centre and two five-star hotels, bringing India's busy financial capital, Mumbai, to a grinding halt. 164 people were killed and over 300 injured in the three-day hostage crisis (Press Information Bureau, 2008). Such an attack, one that paralyzed an entire city, had never happened before in India.
"Advertising changes have penetrated formatting strategies with the use of hand-held cameras and music", argues Rao, and news formats "are dependent on opinionated emotional styles of reporting with the use of dramatic music and altered video to heighten impact."
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According to an article published in The Christian Science Monitor (CSM), "television coverage of the (Mumbai) attacks showed dead bodies and hostages trapped in rooms, revealed commando (anti-terrorist squad) operations and positions and reported the location of hostages at the Taj Mahal Hotel. Senior news editors are accused of playing martial music between updates and providing airtime to Bollywood (Mumbai's film industry) actors and other members of Mumbai's chatterati. One station even aired a telephone conversation with one of the 10 gunmen." (Pepper, 2008).
I do believe the 24-hour television news channels in India went overboard while covering the Mumbai attacks. But the media coverage of the Mumbai episode, in my opinion, was more 'immature' than 'un-ethical'. "There are people on TV channels who are not even familiar with the basics of coverage. I think it needs to evolve itself and it will become mature as time passes," Pankaj Vohra, political editor of the Hindustan Times in New Delhi was quoted as saying in the same CSM article (Pepper, 2008).
I do acknowledge that there were a few 'ethical mistakes' - the one glaring 'ethical mistake', critics argue, is that most media outlets gave more prominence to the Taj Mahal and Oberoi hotels in their coverage of the 60-odd hour crisis and very little was spoken about the train station. Here, over fifty people were gunned down and about 90 others injured (PTI as quoted in The Economic Times, 2009). Furthermore, from the moment the media got wind of the synchronised attacks, television news channels were "quick to blame Pakistan for the attack," (Pepper, 2008). Furthermore, there is one other specific incident from the 'ethics' point of view, involving news broadcaster India Television, and this is discussed in detail in this article.
It would be difficult at this point to comment on whether the Indian media has learnt from its 'ethical mistakes'. Such a conclusion is possible only after observing and comparing Indian media behaviour during the Mumbai attacks with a similar event. But things are moving in the right direction i.e. there's a growing clamour for self-regulation in order to avoid a full-fledged government crackdown on media - the Indian government is threatening to create a broadcast regulatory agency for private TV news channels. (Deccan Herald, 2010).
But before I delve into the changing Indian media landscape, it's important to learn about an organisation called the News Broadcasters Association (NBA) and its role during the Mumbai hostage crisis. The NBA, formed in 2007, counts 14 private news broadcasting companies among its members i.e. it represents 31 news channels. (News Broadcasters Association, 2010). Formed to help news broadcasters lobby with the government, the NBA today is seen spearheading the shift towards self-regulation. A month before the Mumbai attacks the NBA setup a News Broadcasting Standards Disputes Redressal Authority, which is chaired by a former Chief Justice of India, who also happens to be the former chairperson of India's National Human Rights Commission. (News Broadcasters Association, 2008).
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On the second day of the Mumbai attacks, the NBA issued a general notice to its members. The NBA advisory read as follows, "as a measure of self-restraint and self regulation and to demonstrate our sense of responsibility all editors/members are requested to ensure not to cover this episode in any manner that may tend to interfere in the operations of the security agencies or impede the terrorists being brought to justice or endanger the lives of persons who are in the midst of the terror attacks. We emphasise that this advisory be taken with the utmost seriousness since these are matters which are far above the other interests of any broadcaster". (News Broadcasters Association, 2008). The tone of this advisory - "far above the other interests of any broadcaster - is uncommon in the Indian context because the country had never faced anything like this before. But the Indian TV news channels turned a deaf ear to the NBA advisory. The reasons could be:
- The fact that it is a rat-race out there, to be the first to break news - most broadcasters must have overlooked the advisory in a bid to capture viewers' attention and increase their ratings. As a result, Indian television news channels happily showed footage of commandos rappelling down from a helicopter onto the rooftop of the Jewish centre where terrorists were holed up. This, critics argue, could have jeopardised the security forces' operation.
- No regular updates by the government - the editors of the TV news channels argue that the government machinery was incapable of providing regular updates on the situation, and this forced them to go all out and report the crisis as it unfolded. "The [media] beast has got to be constantly fed. The information flow from government sources was terrible," said Rajdeep Sardesai, editor-in-chief of the CNN-IBN news channel (Pepper, 2008).
On drawing heavy criticism for member-channels' coverage of the Mumbai hostage crisis, the NBA came up with a new set of guidelines that same year -- Guidelines for Telecast of News during Emergency Situations - to improve media coverage of 'emergencies' such as the Mumbai attacks (News Broadcasters Association, 2008).
How does self-regulation fare?
One news channel, India Television, was pulled up for violating the NBA's Principles of Self-Regulation and Specific Guidelines Covering Reportage, among other things, privacy, impartiality and objectivity. The complainant here was Farhana Ali, a writer and policy analyst based in the U.S. Her complaint was that "India TV had misused an interview she had given to the Reuters news agency, by 'deceptively dubbing' it in Hindi, a language she does not know or speak. She said this act was 'factually incorrect, unethical and unjustified', a statement issued by the NBA said," (Vishnoi, 2009). India TV ran the interview as part of its coverage of the Mumbai hostage crisis. The NBA directed India TV to pay a fine of Rs 100,000 and carry an apology "as a ticker on any one day between 8 pm and 9 pm, five times with a space of 12 minutes each, stating that Farhana's story was a misrepresentation of facts." In its response, the channel said it had finished airing a clarification on the issue and that it had Ms Ali's letter "expressing her satisfaction with India TV's clarification," (Vishnoi, 2009). A war of words saw India TV withdraw from the NBA but it was later persuaded to return.
Why will self-regulation work, you ask?
The answer is the News Broadcasters Association itself. India TV would have had to consider two things - its advertisers and its audience - ultimately deciding to return to the NBA. As the umbrella body of prominent news broadcasters, the NBA could have lobbied with key advertisers to boycott India TV; it could also lobby with the major Cable TV operators countrywide, asking them to block the news channel. Furthermore, failure to lure India TV could have attracted government intervention, something both the NBA and the member-channels would like to avoid at all costs, especially when the government is proposing regulation to control these news broadcasters.
To sum it up, it is still too early to conclude that the 24-hour television news channels have learnt their lessons. But there is evidence to show how governmental pressure and viewer criticism is forcing the media to re-think the way it implements its core function - the business of gathering and presenting news.
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