Thursday, September 18, 2008

Media Insensitivity

"Coverage of crime brings with it coverage of victims, frequently in dehumanizing ways and with traumatizing results." According to recent events, I feel, it also creates victims out of innocent people, without any regard for the truth.

Take the case of the recent, much covered Arushi murder case in Noida. This is the one of the latest in a long line of media insensitivities. The news media plays a significant role in public safety by providing important information about the nature and extent of crime occurring in communities and efforts to prevent crime and assist victims. However, this coverage sometimes raises legitimate concerns about the rights of crime victims to privacy in the vulnerable aftermath of victimization, particularly in high profile cases. In some cases, victims perceive aggressive, insensitive reporting as a direct threat to their ability to grieve with dignity and to their personal safety. Inaccurate reporting and insensitivity to victims' needs for privacy compound the trauma of crime and often re-victimize the victim.

Also, news agencies are at the end of the day, news agencies. They are not detectives. Sure, investigative journalism exists, but how many of our media people actually bother to investigate any shred of evidence that comes their way? TV news especially has become a warzone. Everything is dictated by TRPs and try to lay claim on eye-balls. With so many competing channels ad each of them regurgitating the same news in no different angles, it becomes important for them to try and go for the early bird strategy.

What results is an amazingly stupid insensitivity to victims of the purported crimes and their families. The media in my opinion has stopped trying to think beyond the TRPs. Libelling and slandering anyone and everyone they think could be a criminal without any research into the allegations they are bandying about on national television is literally ruining peoples lives and reputations.

Its true that the Police force is the source of their reports. But shouldn’t media personnel pause and think for a minute if it even makes sense? Within a space of a week, with respect to the Arushi murder, the media portrayed convincing scenarios of the motive being everything from honour killing to the parents extra-marital affairs dragging in family and friends into the picture. The poor child was 14 years old. Not even out of school. How does honour killing fit? Or do we need a re-education on what honour killings constitute? Then there was the entire hullabaloo about her being an only child of working parents and confiding in a male servant. Seriously, after all the coverage of her planning a party with family and friends, doesn’t it seem a contradiction?

The Arushi incident is merely the latest example of the explosion in crime coverage. Yet, it may also be a precursor of a new era of a media focus on victims that threatens to put them at even greater risk of a "second wound"--the additional trauma inflicted by insensitive and intrusive coverage.Even as the rates of violent crime continue to decline, the percentage of news coverage devoted to it is climbing. The proliferation of, and competition among, the cable news networks such as CNN, CNBC, NDTV, TIMES Now, Headlines today etc as well as the increase in primetime hours devoted to newsmagazine shows on network TV, add to the shift toward crime coverage as a top category of legitimate news. Literally hundreds of producers are scouring the country looking for victims of violence willing to talk about what happened to them. The ones who show emotion tend to receive the repeat offers, and they may be asked to appear again when a similar incident happens. New, too, is increased reporting on the previously "hidden" crimes of domestic violence and offenses against children.

Troubling for victims is many TV stations and newspapers assigning rookies to crime and breaking news, often as a trial by fire to see if they are tough enough. The same people that would never send a reporter who knew nothing of cricket to cover a match will assign an untrained reporter to interview a parent who has had a child murdered.

Coverage of crime brings with it coverage of victims, frequently in dehumanizing ways and with traumatizing results. The irony is that close, intrusive coverage of the victim may be occasionally explained away as an effort to "humanize" crime. The blunt and edgy portrayal of crime and its victims is done to "put a human face on violence" in a country where homicide is commonplace is the excuse. Makes us ashamed to even look in a mirror if that’s the face we have to see.

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