Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Anything learned from 26/11?

For 15 months, India was spared terror strikes. All that changed on the night of February 13, when a bomb was planted in Pune’s popular German Bakery. In the ensuing blast, nine people were killed, including three foreigners – an Italian, an Iranian and a Nepali. Oddly many newspapers only wrote about two foreigners, failing to recognise that the Nepali too was a foreigner.

In the time gap between the terror strike in Mumbai on November 26, 2008 and February 13, 2010, much has been written about the role of the media and its coverage of the over 60 hours when 10 terrorists held the attention of the entire nation. News channels, in particular, came in for a great deal of criticism for their coverage during and after the terror strike. The jingoistic tone of some channels, notably Times Now, after the terror attack was noted including the way in which its anchors egged studio guests to agree that India should strike back at Pakistan. The media spilled over with pseudo-nationalism and anger against Pakistan. Any attempts to introduce some nuance, to point out the difference between the people of Pakistan and the government, and the difference between Jehadi elements in Pakistan and the government, were shouted down.

Barring a few exceptions, there was a disturbing uniformity in the tone of the media in the days after 26/11. The criticism, however, did not go unheeded. Although there was some defensiveness, several television journalists acknowledged that perhaps they had crossed the line.

It was also evident that the authorities had failed in the way they dealt with the media. In Mumbai, there was no clear centre of authority. Media persons ran from person to person getting quotes, all of them aired in real time. None of this helped create a sense of reassurance or confidence in the public.

After the Pune blast, there was much self-congratulation by the central government and the Maharashtra government on how well they reacted to the tragedy compared to 26/11. Some of this was true. Maharashtra Chief Minister Ashok Chavan was available to the media, as was Union Home Secretary Pillai in Delhi. Home Minister P. Chidambaram visited Pune within less than 24 hours of the incident. The media were briefed by those given the authority to speak.

Yet, even this time, there was chaos in the immediate aftermath. For one, television footage depicted police, journalists and the public stomping all over the devastated site, unmindful of the fact that they might be destroying important forensic evidence. The Pune police was clearly unprepared or not briefed on how to deal with such a situation. In any other country, such areas are immediately cordoned off. It will be recalled, that in Mumbai on November 29, when the last terrorist had been gunned down at the Taj Mahal Hotel, the electronic media went berserk, trampling over broken glass, pushing their way into the hotel and even holding up burnt curtains to show viewers the damage inside. Then too the authorities failed to prevent anyone, particularly the media, from entering the battle-scarred hotel.

But even if in these instances the authorities could be faulted, has the media learned anything since 26/11 about its own responsibility during and after such events?

Perhaps not. After 26/11 there was wholesale speculation about who was responsible for the terror attack even before the government could make a definite statement. This time again, the government has been careful to say that all facts must be checked before anything definitive can be stated. Yet, the media has already made up its mind. Here’s a sample of front-page headlines from four Mumbai-based multi-edition newspapers on February 15:

The Times of India: Blast Part of LeT’s Karachi Project? Hand of Indian Mujahideen seen all over

Hindustan Times: Directed by LeT, executed by IM?

The story goes on to quote a ‘senior security official’: “It looks like a combined effort, commanded by the LeT leadership in Pakistan and executed by IM sleeper cells. US citizen David Headley is the man Lashkar used for the recce.”

DNA: Finger points to LeT-backed IM: Govt fears serial attacks

It would appear that the same ‘senior security official’ briefed all three newspapers. So what should newspapers do with such information? Run it with attribution somewhere in the paper or play it up on the front-page even before the forensic evidence has been collected and analysed?

One would have thought that after 26/11, the media had decided to err on the side of caution. But that was then. Clearly, today is another day and we are back to the principle of competition and the best strategy to capture eyeballs and sell newspapers.

Only Indian Express struck a different note with its headline: Govt. decides, terror won’t hit talks with Pak. View is knee-jerk reactions don’t help, priorities may be changed later

The second issue in the aftermath of terror attacks is sensitivity, especially when speaking to survivors or the families of those who died. Within an hour of the blast, television cameras were hounding the wounded being wheeled into hospitals. We saw undignified shots of people, some with their clothes torn off, struggling to maintain some dignity in the face of a battery of lights and camera. TV crews tracked down the families of those who had died and as usual tried to get statements despite appeals from these families that they be left alone to grieve in private. Finally the Pune police chief had to intervene and issue a directive asking media not to harass the wounded in the hospitals. No lessons learned here either.

(The Hoot, Feb 15, 2010)

(See also more detailed analysis on Infochange: http://infochangeindia.org/Media/Related-Analysis/Confused-coverage-damaged-credibility.html)

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