Can the Indian media show a little respect for the dead?

Last Updated: Fri, Aug 05, 2011 08:01 hrs

Angad Mehta’s mother and younger brother narrowly escaped the July 13 bomb blasts in Mumbai. They’d driven past the Kabutar Khana junction in Dadar mere minutes before the explosion. “I don’t have words to say how lucky we are,” the 24-year-old chemistry PhD student from Mumbai told me over the phone from College Station, Texas. 

Mehta’s mother called him soon after the blasts with the news. It was 8 am in Texas then. Unable to go back to sleep, Mehta spent hours scouring news websites and watching TV for updates, his emotions flitting between exhausted disbelief (not Mumbai again!) and anxiety. And then as he read more and more reports and saw more and more videos, he started getting upset for yet another reason — the graphic images of victims splayed across news websites and TV screens.

“Some think it’s justified to publish such photographs because it shows what’s real, but Mumbai has had bomb blasts 13 times [since 1993]. We’ve seen the carnage many times, we don’t need to see it again,” he said. “Everybody is already emotional. This just makes it worse. I thought after the whole fiasco over the 2008 terrorist attacks coverage, the media would do it better this time.” 

Mehta is no stranger to death. He’s lost friends and nieghbours in previous attacks. He knows what victims’ families go through and he knows how hurtful and provocative such graphic images can be to those left behind. Which is why he’s upset. 

His reaction reminded me of how my friend and fellow journalist Scott Carney described Indian media’s relationship with death in his new book, The Red Market, that I’d been reading just a few days ago: 

“On Indian television death has a starring role right next to diamond-dripping celebrities. Tasteful shots of covered bodies and toe tags are for American newspapers. Instead on the Indian news the faces of the dead loll obscenely, shot after grotesque shot, in unending montages of personal tragedy.”

(Carney’s observation is in context of his attempt to prevent the body of a young American woman from being filmed by a hoard of jostling journalists. More on his book in later column.)

I was reminded also, of when I used to be a nighttime copyeditor at a newspaper in Calcutta. The first question we learned to ask every time we received news alerts about accidents was: “How many dead?” Usually, if the toll was two or three and didn’t include anyone of fame, dubious or otherwise, it didn’t merit more than a “news brief” – a short 50-60 word paragraph buried somewhere in the inside pages.  Sometimes, it didn’t merit any mention at all.

Life is cheap in our billion-strong nation.

But does that make it alright for journalists to disregard suffering victims and their families? Or not consider the impact such images could have on those seeing them? (The impact can go beyond causing grief. In the Mumbai blasts case, for instance, Mehta worried that the images could incite further violence. Media coverage of the 2008 terrorist siege on Mumbai was widely thought to have amplified panic and helped terrorists get information on victims and police movements.)

The issue of how Indian news media covers death and tragic incidents is a deeply important ethical dilemma for journalists that, sadly, doesn’t get discussed or debated enough our country. 

In much of Western media, on the other hand, there’s quite a bit of soul searching on striking the right balance in the face of tragedy; about how to be compassionate and truthful at the same time.

I remember this debate became concentrated around whether or not to publish images of people falling or jumping off the burning Twin Towers during the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York.  And as far as I recall, only one image was ever published. It was of a man falling, head first, one knee bent, the towers behind him. 

The photograph ran in papers all over the country and drew protests from a large section of the American public who accused the media of exploiting a man’s death. But I’ve always thought that among the hundreds of thousands of photographs that were taken that day, it was the most heartbreaking and the most expressive of the horror of the attacks. That’s probably why so many editors chose to run it.

On the whole though, I think Western media’s coverage of the death tends to err on the side of being overly sensitive. As Carney pointed out, covered bodies and tagged toes is as far as it usually goes. Some media houses won’t even do that. For instance, the Texarkana Gazette, a local Texas newspaper, decided back in 1989 not to show bodies “under sheets, or in bags, or on stretchers, or in any other state of demise.” This is taking it too far — sanitizing death, a basic fact of life until there’s no trace left of it. 

The right balance lies somewhere in between. 

Dead bodies shouldn’t be banned from news media. But ideally, we shouldn’t publish graphic images of tragedies except when they shed light on a situation and help viewers connect at an emotional level with the victims’ plight and engender some greater good. (For example, an image of a child dying of starvation in the Somalia might prompt people to make donations towards famine relief.)

However, choosing what image to run with and what to drop can be tricky in crisis situations. And if coverage of the Mumbai attacks is any indication, most of Indian media isn’t mature enough yet to make that call.

Also read:

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Justice? Not for those I saw plunge to their deaths

Maureen Nandini Mitra is managing editor of Earth Island Journal, an award-winning US environmental quarterly based in Berkeley, California. In addition to her work at the Journal, she writes for several other magazines and online publications in the US and India.

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