By Major General Mrinal Suman, AVSM, VSM, PhD
If India thrives as a vibrant democracy, a great deal of credit goes to its media, both electronic and print. The media has been highly active in exposing weaknesses in governance and decay in societal standards.
Even the Indian military has not escaped its inquisition.
Being a vital instrument of the government that consumes considerable resources, the military is as answerable to countrymen as any other public institution. But does the media always play fair?
Media coverage of any episode can be broadly divided into three phases:
Breaking News Phase
It is the phase in which the opening salvo is fired. As limited facts are available in public domain, conjectures are flashed as news from 'reliable sources'.
Every media house tries to sensationalise the issue by inventing imaginative and sometimes totally unrelated headlines to outdo others in TRP ratings.
Though unfair to the affected people, the media can be pardoned for such misdemeanors to some extent as it becomes a professional compulsion for them to make an impact.
Detailed Coverage Phase
This is generally a much longer phase during which the events/issues are analysed repeatedly by inviting 'experts'. Some media houses do try to moderate their stance as more facts get revealed and they become aware of the truth.
In a subtle manner, they accept their earlier mistake and try to make amends. However, their number is highly limited.
Most media houses find it undignified to change track and continue to harp on half-truths to justify their earlier stand and coverage. They continue with the vilification of hapless victims, despite availability of newer information to the contrary.
Ego ruling over ethics is the hall mark of this phase.
No media entity has ever bothered to analyse an issue/occurrence in retrospect to correct its earlier coverage and communicate truth to the environment. Such introspection can help media become aware of pitfalls of unsubstantiated reporting and thereby protect its credibility.
It will also help redeem the reputation and provide solace to victims of its smear campaign to some extent. To admit mistakes requires a great deal of sensitivity for others and Indian media has yet to attain that state of maturity. Unfortunately, this phase is conspicuous by its absence.
As there is a very thin line that separates investigative coverage from unfounded vilification, media houses readily sacrifice truth and objectivity to grab maximum publicity and viewership. In many cases, need for sensationalism forces media to create media hype by coining highly outrageous and absurd slogans.
Terms like 'Ketchup Colonel,' 'Booze Brigadier' and 'Frisky General' are decidedly unfair and derogatory.
As soldiers are very conscious of their public image, unfair media coverage causes immense pain to them. Two cases (the Sukhna land case and the Adarsh Society case) in recent times have dented the image of the army officers and shown them as unethical and scheming persons for monetary gains.
As reasonable time has passed and considerable specifics of the cases are available in the public domain, it will be educative to review them with respect to the above mentioned three phases.
Image: This television grab from AAJ TAK TV shows military personnel as they abseil from a helicopter onto a roof of a building in Mumbai early November 28, 2008. (Photograph copyright AFP)