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Mixed Media: What must a news channel do: save a person’s life or show apathy of people around him?

12-January-2010
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Mixed Media:  What must a news channel do: save a person’s life or show apathy of people around him?

In the Bharatiya Janata Party, it’s called ‘aatma chintan’, or soul searching. Guess it’s also appropriate usage for what I think is necessary for the Indian media to do after last Friday’s incident in a Tamil Nadu town.

A sub-police inspector was injured and two state ministers and a few officers around him did precious little to save the cop’s life. A leading news channel aired the story and scoffed at the ministers for being a mute witness to an officer dying. What the hell were they doing?

Friend and founder-chief of PR company CMCG Samir Kale was quick to post this as the status message on his Facebook ID: “Even the camera crew appears too busy filming the dying cop instead of offering any help!” Point.

The media frat has been abuzz with this issue since last weekend on what should have been done. Should a journalist on assignment dump his/her camera and microphone and help a person crying for help or forget about all these emotions and capture award-winning (or otherwise) footage.

I am not naming the channel in question here because it’s not relevant. I am sure this could’ve happened at any news network. The issue that Kale and several others appear to be raising: in the rush for breaking news and higher ratings, news folk tend to forget what must happen instinctively: there’s a life at stake so drop everything and help save it!

“Should the cameraperson in TN have stopped rolling tape and gone and helped the dying inspector?” tweeted Rajdeep Sardesai a day after the incident. “And should we be showing the pics? My view: we have no choice since the death is central to the story. I share your outrage over TN incident, but can understand the cameraperson's dilemma too. He sees life through a lens.”

What would you have done had you been on the spot? I tweeted this question to both Sardesai and Barkha Dutt. Got no response from the former, but Barkha was candid when she said: “I have been in situations where one tries and does both. Our job is to document history too.” And added: “Was important for media to not be part of apathy in TN cop’s case, but was also important for them to capture the apathy.”

I asked Barkha what she would do if someone crying for help were to drop in front of her. Guess you would do more than just film, I quizzed. “For sure. No question. If I could help, I would,” she said. “Don’t think the choices are mutually exclusive, never have been in all my years of conflict reporting.”

Sadly, that’s not a doctrine many news organisations would like to practise in India. The ratings chase is so competitive that lives of a few individuals are incidental. Barkha was quick to defend her fraternity even before I negated her earlier statement. “I think many of us do have a human side. Ironically, there are enough out there who want us to be bland and clinical and distant.”

Sardesai responded to tweeter Ravdip Singh Sohi’s poser (“Can’t understand that after shooting his footage why he couldn’t help. Did he need 1hrs footage to prove his point?”), with this: “I agree. Cameraman after shooting basic footage should have focussed on helping the man.”

I spoke to a cross-section of television and newspaper journalists and while they agreed that it’s important to help save a life, if it doesn’t happen, it’s possibly because the journos too are under severe stress. “Most often, the only thing that’s running in our minds is to get the footage and be back at work and home soonest,” a senior editor told me.

Some years back, when a Hindustan Times photographer was killed in Srinagar, Barkha Dutt reached out to an injured photog. “The instinct is to help first always and report alongside,” she says. Not everyone agrees this should happen. “We are in the business of bringing you news. The objective is to get everything on record and not vie for bravery awards or brownie points,” an editor told me requesting anonymity adding that there are many cases when journalists do help but that’s only after the job is done.

Endpoint: News organisations must inculcate in their employees the need for larger social good. Not easy to happen, but if the seeds are sown now, perhaps the next generation of journalists may handle situations differently. Save lives and do super journalism. Time indeed for some ‘aatma chintan’.

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