July 2004 : Fire rages in a Kumbakonam School and 100 odd children are, for the sake of avoiding a more gruesome word, burnt to death.
Cut to August 2008: A fake alarm of a landslide triggers, at a temple in Himachal Pradesh, a slide of humans instead and in the ensuing stampede 140 people are crushed to death.
Apart from being tragedies which evoked both anger at the administration and sympathy in a large scale for the victims, these two and many more such tragedies share another common thread. Highly insensitive reporting by the media all in the effort to sensationalize these events. The photographs in the leading dailies of our nation in addition to presenting a sad story also cut a sorry picture. For instance, The Hindu, a supposedly more conservative paper , had a dozen or so pictures of charred remains of the victims, totally distraught kin and more pictures of charred bodies splashed all across their back page . The recent stampede ensured Times of India had something other than scantily clad women to feature on their front page. What about a photo showing dozens of dead bodies instead?? Who cares as long it creates an impact.
The electronic media (television primarily) aren't exactly finger licking kids either in this respect. The most disturbing visuals were aired recently after the Kabul bombings. It showed the son of the slain individual performing the last rites of his father. How more insensitive can the media get? I am not risking my stakes at any level because just as you think reporting has reached a nadir they dig down even further. If only they dug so deep for oil across the world, we wouldn't be bothered about rising fuel prices atleast. In the recent past we have seen so many instances when the kith and kin of victims of crime are made to come on camera and then made to answer questions which only intensify the pain and sufering they undergo. Would it be asking for too much to ask the media to avoid such sound bytes?
Even a couple of days back, in one of the news channels coverage of killings in an ashram they had a parent of one of the kids sent there wailing on camera for the whole nation to see. It is one thing if someone suddenly starts weeping uncontrollably when on air and totally another when the camera is not taken off the faces of these individuals but instead, kept on them long enough, that it gets highly revolting. This is not a one off incident but something which has been happening with unfailing regularity on our news circuits. The editors and correspondents who are behind such coverage would have a great alternate career as script writers for the K series of soaps. They realize the impact that tears have in living rooms across the country.
It wouldn't be a crime to say that the beheading videos that various terrorist organizations upload on their websites are better than the kind of news items the media carries. After all when you enter the site you are aware of what you will be viewing. Imagine a 15 year old who is an avid sports page fan of The Hindu, eager to get his fill of the happenings in the world of sports first thing in the morning, turning to the last page and finding photographs of burnt bodies instead. What is the impact that it will have on these impressionable young minds. Or lets consider even a 65 year old who's seen everything in life looking at those pictures. He is not likely to be too visually impressed either. What is the point of using such photographs? Everyone knows that a tragedy has happened but not everyone would like to chew their morning breakfast looking at these photographs.
What is even more saddening is that in a decade when two of the most event defining pictures have been published in our national dailies such disturbing photographs and videos are starting to form a staple ingredient. Lets take for example the now timeless picture of that Ahmedabad tailor, terror and fear evident in every sinew of his face, pleading to be left alone, during the Gujarat riots a few years back. The photograph did not contain any images of weapons, dead bodies or blood. It told a story. In fact it did much more than that. It created an impact. It was worth a thousand editorials. The other photograph in focus is the award winning picture taken in the aftermath of the Tsunami which took more than one lakh victims. It wasn't a picture of strewn bodies. It contained just one woman who was dealing with the loss of her loved ones. It does contradict what I said about grieving images being disturbing. But this one was different. It had a certain raw appeal about it. Like the Gujarat riot picture, it put the whole Tsunami in perpective with just a single picture. The loss that the victims kin feel, the loneliness and the despair, everything was so effectively conveyed in just this one click of the camera.
When such amazing works are possible in the most disturbing situations and in tragedies of such magnitude, why can't the media work towards bringing a more cultured rather than sensational approach to stories of human suffering? Are TRPs and number of copies sold the only measure of success for a media organization? In the information era when the power of the media is ever increasing, it should try to break information barriers than be mere breaking news tools, and more importantly try to be more sensitive than sensational.