Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Riot Images

The way in which the media perceives events has been a topic of discussion in recent years, thanks to the news literacy, which the fourth estate, particular­ly the electronic media has brought about. Despite the writings on the wall and screens and rebukes by the media beaters they continue to be bandwagons and tend to move without an ethical manifesto. This is true, particularly when the media is confronted by a violent episode, Godhra is the latest.
The riots indeed were a celebra­tion for the newspapers and the tel­evision channels, all competing with each other to exploit the inci­dent blatantly depicting and most often projecting the real situation, which is not advisable at the time of riots, violence or civil war. This never helps in bringing out the truth, but only adds fuel to the fire, whereas self censorship is the need of the hour.
A riot is never a riot for the media, but a media event, which can easily be sold and an occasion to draw the attention of its con­sumers. But what is more danger­ous than these business mantras is the 'media images' projected by the reports, headlines and 'human interest' photographs. Thus a head­line becomes more explosive than the bombs thrown by the rioting mobs. The major English newspa­pers offer good examples. Reporting the Godhra incidents on February 28th, the Indian Express wrote, 'Women, kids among 57 killed' without identifying either the persons who had perpetrated the crime or the victims. But in The Hindu, the headline was: '57 killed as mob torches train in Gujarat' with a clear hint of the identity of the victims: 'Ram Sevaks targeted'. The lead itself said that the train carried 'Ram Sevaks', whereas the report in the Indian Express never mentioned 'Ram Sevaks' either in the head­line, lead or in the first four para­graphs. Those who read The Hindu report cannot be blamed for becoming Muslim baiters.
The next day (March 1st) too The Hindu repeated the 'mistake', but in a different way. Both the English newspapers had carried photographs of rioters setting fire to public properties in the streets, but The Hindu had specified in its caption that it is 'in retaliation to the attack on the train', which in other words form a call to retaliate in a similar way. The papers on March 3rd should be seriously studied. The Indian Express had the headline: 'Violence unabated, toll 300' with a human interest pic­ture showing a family sitting near the charred remains of a motor bike, with no hints to reveal their religious identity. But The Hindu published a sensational pho­tograph of a family comprising women and children looking out of their burnt home and the caption indicating that it was a 'Hindu fam­ily in a Muslim dominated area'. The connotation is that the Hindus are unsafe. Since majority of the victims of the riots was Muslims, the intention of The Hindu photo­graph was mischievous. It would have been excusable as a 'human interest picture' if the paper did not specify the religious identity of the victims, particularly in a time of unabated violence. Thus the Ram Sevak acquires a more sober and sympathetic image, than his Muslim brother who carries with him a more militant picture.
It is a fact that nowadays nobody bothers to read an entire newspaper story at a stretch. Most people only look at the headlines and the pictures. Whatever be the report, the negative 'media images' conveyed through the headlines or pictures will act as mines, which will explode at a later date. The greatest damage occurs when these images become rooted in the minds of the readers to give them social acceptance even years after the incident. If this continues the anti­terrorism Act will also have to include the editors and proprietors of the various media in its purview!
If this is so with the print media the extent of damage which the visual media creates can only be imagined. The 'moving image' is so powerful as it is regarded as 'reliable' and 'right from the scene'; it can subvert even your very belief. That is what the soap operas like Mahabharat and Ramayan had proved in yester­years. The vicious images fabricat­ed and conveyed by the fundamen­talist language press such as Samna and Dainik Jagran in the Hindi belt, is a good example to illustrate this. The panacea to curb these absurd tendencies is not media watch dogs like the Press Council with rubber teeth, but professional non-government media watchers like the FAIR and AIM in the West. Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting ( and Accuracy in Media ( are the prominent media watch groups in the US. Professional journals like Columbia Journalism Review ( and Online Journalism Review ( also offer a good media watch.
Media watch here is tethered to occasional columns or television shows or discussion seminars as part of academic exercises. What we want is media watch groups to criticize and monitor the activities of the media and also a code of conduct in reporting religious riots and similar incidents.

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