Criminal Cases and the Media


A very interesting phenomenon has emerged lately. As one scans the daily newspapers, one comes across reports of many crimes which have been committed in the city. Naturally, one looks into the article to gain information about the person(s) responsible for this act.

But is that information authentic? As is quite apparent from the Jessica Lal, Priyadarshini Mattoo, Nitin Katara and Scarlett Keeling cases, the media has started playing a very active role in investigation of the crime and the trial that follows it. It is desirable, some might say, to have the media trailing the investigation of the police as it may lead to greater transparency in the same. However, one must understand the power of the media and the enormous effect the coverage has on the impressions and opinions of the people. Let me explain this with an example.

Suppose, a wealthy lady who had been living in an affluent part of the city, is found murdered one morning, with all her jewellery gone and her only daughter missing. And say, the police inspector lets loose a comment in one of his interviews to the news channels, that the culprit may be the daughter. The following morning, the newspapers carry a lengthy article headed, “The snake in the grass”, with links to different articles in the subsequent pages discussing parent-child relationships, the rising crime among the youth and the deteriorating values in the country. What does a normal person, who reads the newspaper daily, think about the case on seeing this? Quite obviously, he will comprehend that the daughter is the murderer, even though it has not been established yet and she is only a suspect.

The investigation has not even started and the trial hasn’t been concluded. But that makes no difference. The people’s version of the case would be that the daughter, in a fit of rage, killed her mother and ran off with the jewellery. However, the truth remains to be established. Yet, due to the presumptuous attitude of the media, the public has already convicted someone. Consider the Aarushi murder case. It is indeed true that the media has ridiculed the police’s investigation, but the articles appearing in some of the most ‘reliable’ newspapers in town undermine its own credibility. Firstly, the case is constantly referred to as the ‘Aarushi murder case’; the fact that another man was murdered on the same night seems to have become redundant. The police’s claims have yet to be proved. Yet, the media has embarked on a campaign of speculation regarding Aarushi’s character, her relationship with her parents, interviews with neighbours and the rest of it, has made a sombre investigation into a melodrama, full of mudslinging and scathing attacks. The media is as cruel, ruthless and indifferent, as it is impulsive. Mrs. Talwar’s privacy was grossly invaded when she was hounded by television reporters asking her questions regarding her daughter’s character and her husband’s criminal tendencies.

In some newspapers, it is even seen that the word ‘alleged’ is conveniently dropped and the suspect is freely referred to as the murderer, the accused or the criminal. The media does not understand that a suspect is different from a person awaiting trial, and even more different from a person who has been convicted in a trial. Through its sensational articles and melodramatic language, it effectively distorts the truth and leads the people to believe what has not yet been proven. Another aspect of the situation is the immense pressure that the media puts on the executive to work. Indeed, I agree that this pressure is justified, since it jolts the executive into action. But, such a pressure can also force the executive to mobilize itself into any action, whether wrong or right, as long as they are able to show to the people and the media that they are taking some action.

Perhaps, the lapses in the investigation of the police can be attributed to this pressure. The role of the media is to report what is the truth; it is not to influence the authorities responsible for discovering the truth and the authorities responsible for delivering justice. It is not up to the media to decide what justice is, what should have been done, what must be done or what according to them is the truth. The media’s role is to inform the people what action has been taken, by whom, and in what context. In a democracy like India, the media serves as the factual ground on which one bases one’s views and opinions to engage in a healthy debate. If the facts themselves are tainted and distorted, then the entire structure becomes precarious.

Rhishabh Jetley

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