Wednesday, December 03, 2008

How not to report terrorism

Cristcism is always acceptable in democracy. Media mostly inform people in good faiht, but sometimes it cant understand the ethics and codes. An Indian media researcher highlights the mumbai attack issue coverage flaws.

Media Yug

How not to report terrorism

By Venkata Vemuri on December 2, 2008 1:52 pm

The Indian television coverage of the Mumbai terror strikes left much to be desired. Senior broadcast journalist and media researcher Venkata Vemuri analyses the areas of weaknesses and finds no excuse for the substandard reportage of such a serious issue.

I WAS A broadcast journalist in India and when news about the string of terror attacks in Mumbai broke on the evening of November 26, I knew exactly what to expect from the television channels there.

The channels would splash the TV screens with ‘breaking news’ tags in bright red, the anchors would have phone-ins with their reporters from Mumbai, which would become live chats once the Outdoor Broadcast (OB) vans reached the spot(s); some reporters would upload ‘walk-throughs’; they would try to talk to eyewitnesses with timeless questions like “kya hua, kya dekha, aapko kaisa laga, police kitne der se pahunchi” (what happened, what did you see, how did you feel, how late was the police in arriving).

The second wave of the ‘breaking news’ reporting would be led by strings in red and black, with or without a Mumbai backdrop, and carrying bold headlines articulating each channel’s opinion of what the attacks mean to India. They would include labels like ‘India’s 9/11′ or ‘maut ka aatank’ (the scourge of death).

In this phase would come more eyewitness accounts. The crime reporters would go live with information about police and paramilitary movements, the scenes at hospitals, reactions of relatives and, of course, the politicians. More importantly, the channels would take on a nationalistic hue saying things like “India’s pride is attacked”, “Bharat will not submit to terrorism”, and so on. In the absence of any clear, factual information, it will be left to the anchors to mouth generalities or repeat themselves to keep the channels live.

In the third phase, the channels would intersperse spot visuals running in loops with graphics explaining the salient points over a map showing the points of attacks. By this time, the channels would have invited retired policemen, bureaucrats or terrorism experts to studios for live analysis. International reactions to the attacks would be beamed, along with human interest stories and, where possible, phone-ins from people holed up in the buildings where the attacks occurred.

If the attacks continued into the morning, as the ones in Mumbai did, the reporters, including senior journalists flown in overnight from New Delhi, would start a fresh cycle of the same news, with lives and walk-throughs, and give us their opinion of how the counterterrorism operations are going on. The bulk of the day’s reporting would focus on the ‘why’ of the attacks, notwithstanding the absence of any official statements on it.

The news channels, by and large, did not belie my expectations. And that is the point of this article.

Whether it is a story about a stampede in a temple, a boy falling into a manhole, a thief being beaten up by the public, the sensex going up or down, or an act of terrorism, the treatment by channels more or less follows the above routine. If one cares to go through the video archives of channels, one would find a striking similarity in even the words and phrases and visuals used then and now.

Indian journalists have been reporting on conflicts and terrorism for over two decades now, from the militancy in Punjab, Jammu and Kashmir and the north-eastern states, the low-intensity conflict on the India-Pakistan border, and in recent years, the number of attacks on several
Indian cities - even the Indian Parliament - by so-called terrorist groups.

What is missing from reporting on terrorism in India, unfortunately, is the big picture, not only in terms of (a) exhaustive reportage on the event, but also in terms of (b) the geopolitical impact in the global sense.

The first points to the gullibility of the journalists, the second to their lack of awareness. Whether both notions are wrong and such impressions are primarily caused by the newsroom chaos in handling breaking news, it is up to the channels to introspect.

Novice journalists are often told by their seniors that the single mantra in a breaking news scenario is to keep one’s cool. That is the rule practiced more in the breach. Each channel has its own editorial crisis news committee that oversees how breaking news is treated. But somewhere along the way, things snap.

Often it is found there is no one in the newsroom drawing up coverage plans and directing the news team. As a result, the coverage is more of a dish-it-as-it-comes variety even after the first hour of the event. It is the duty of the newsroom seniors to ensure that information is not repeated throughout the news wheel, but is refreshed frequently. It is true that new information is flashed as soon as it comes, but it does not stand out in the general melee of visual loops and continuous, non-informative chats.

The worst aspect of television coverage in India is the abject display of sentiment by journalists. They use adjectives at random, deploring the terrorists and pining for the victims. The channels rave about “nationalism”, the “national spirit” and so on. A sense of an objective assessment of what is happening is, therefore, lost. A glaring example in the Mumbai attacks case is the killing of three senior officers of Mumbai’s anti-terrorism squad. The anchors broke the news with their throats constricted, searching for words like “sacrifice”, “altar of duty” and “honour”. What was lost were simple details like how they died, where they died, what were they doing, etc, which was left for later bulletins.

It is pertinent here to recall what Canadian journalist and media educator Ross Howard said at the 2003 International Roundtable on New Approaches to Conflict Reporting in Copenhagen on the use of sentiment by the media:

“Look at the work of the FOX Television network in the USA. During the invasion of Iraq, newscasters waved and wore American flags, and abandoned all impartiality or fairness by providing a kind of play-by-play home-team coverage of the war between ‘our boys versus the enemy’. It was not professional journalism. Increasingly, this uncritical (and overtly partisan) journalism is contributing to a dangerous American public isolation and insulation from reality on the global scene. Restoring and introducing critical thinking to Western journalism is a partial antidote to the FOX News style of journalism. We need to restore some old standards.”
In the initial hours of the Mumbai attacks, foreign channels were far ahead with factual information, which they culled out from blogs and chat rooms, and strengthened with details from interviews, including with guests at the two hotels attacked by the terrorists. Some foreign channels put the Mumbai attacks in perspective right away by giving a timeline of previous attacks in India to conclude that the latest strikes were actually an escalation in terrorism. They pointed out that unlike in previous cases, the current strikes also involved taking hostage of western nationals. It was a logical deduction on the basis of some good homework, plus locating the new angle of hostage-taking in the current strikes.

A major reason why the Indian channels looked no different the day after the attacks from the night before was sheer lack of information about the ongoing counter-terrorism operation by the security forces in the two Mumbai hotels where the terrorists were holed up with hostages. Broadcast journalism in India is no longer in its infancy and many of its practitioners have reported on conflicts worldwide and therefore, there is no excuse for substandard coverage of such a serious issue.

Secrecy on part of the official agencies and lack of access by journalists both played a role in this blank phase of news on the strikes on the second day. Indian journalists, routinely attuned to covering crime, often find it difficult to cope with such situations. How to keep their channels moving forward in such situations? Lack of knowledge about the country’s anti-terrorism apparatus, the types of agencies and personnel involved, and general information about their operational techniques appear to have hindered the journalists. As a result, uninformed theories, even rumours were reported as news.

Such reportage looks childish. Like, for instance, a channel showed its reporter, standing at the back of one of the Mumbai hotels, telling the audience that the police were clever enough to post themselves at the hotel’s rear so that the terrorists would not be able to escape unnoticed. Knowledge about the encircling tactics of counter-terrorism agencies as well as the level of determination of the terrorists inside the hotel - would they allow themselves to be captured alive? - would have made the reporter’s chat more meaningful.

Even when channels secure tactical information about an operation, they should have second
thoughts about broadcasting it for fear of the data benefiting the attackers. A couple of channels had some such information about the ongoing operation in Taj Mahal hotel in Mumbai, which they screamed as exclusive news, oblivious to the larger ethical questions involved.
What Indian broadcast journalism should now look for is specialised reporting on terrorism. Treating a terrorist strike story in the same way as a child falling into a manhole will not help, simply because news channels influence people’s perceptions and an unprofessional approach to news dissemination can result in inappropriate fallouts. Also, terrorism is not a domestic issue restricted to the borders of one country and as it is there exists enough evidence of its globally intertwined presence.

The Mumbai strikes were treated more as a local Mumbai event, rather than a national issue. The ‘national’ duty was discharged by becoming inanely sentimental. There was no attempt to see the strikes in the perspective of the global, or even sub-continental, spread of terrorism.
In such situations, journalists should keep in mind they are no longer dealing with local police or petty criminals. They should be able to raise the standard of reporting by making themselves aware of the causes, impact and nexus of terrorism beyond their own country’s borders. This calls for journalists undergoing training programmes in terrorism reporting, on the lines of conflict reporting.

More important than such training is developing a professional attitude when dealing with terrorism and not giving into bouts of sentimentality, which derails the whole purpose of reporting on such events. Not the least, journalists must realise that while it is professional to break the news first, a race to break it can be hazardous in such situations, with accuracy, objectivity and credibility the first victims.

Venkata Vemuri is a senior Indian journalist, currently doing his PhD in the UK. He can be reached at


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