The Mumbai terror strikes on 26th November, 2008, left the nation stunned, scarred, numb and with lots of painful memories. Now as the overwhelming reality finally sinks in, it becomes imperative to look back and reflect at the horrendous incident. Taking from Osborne I would say, ‘look back in anger and remember and mourn not only those who suffered but also evaluate the role of the media, one of the most vital components of our Indian society.’
Let us first look into the much touted coverage by television. With new channels proliferating every now and then, the war for higher TRPs is now the top most priority. In this mad rush to woo audiences, content and quality more often than not get left behind. This has been the trend for sometime past and it was manifested once again in the kind of treatment the attacks received. The breaking news syndrome has been in vogue for a long time now and these attacks were just perfect fodder. Channels across the board telecasted the 3 day siege at the Taj, Oberoi, Trident and Nariman House continuously. A live broadcast of an emergency like this was not the issue but the approach. There was a sense of thoughtlessness in these broadcasts as we later realised. Explaining in graphic detail the plan of action of the NSG commandos and telecasting their positions on television resulted in many casualties. The terrorists were equipped with GPS phones or Blackberrys which gave them access to the counter attack by our forces, courtesy the news channels. A lot of lives were lost as a result. This reeks of not only thoughtlessness but also a high degree of irresponsibility. The only concern for the channels seems to have been to break some new story before the others. If that is the aim then one can well imagine the result of such a rat race. Two well known channels were ticked off by the Government for telecasting information unverified. One thing which should always be desisted in times of calamities is fuelling rumours and if the media starts doing that then we definitely have a problem on our hands. The role of Media in a society is dual; reflective as well as corrective (which does not in the least mean moral policing). When the media does not even reflect the truth, the corrective will not even figure in the scheme of things.
Another unhealthy trend was the over the top nationalism or rather jingoism being propagated. Most on the spot reporters were clearly flummoxed about their role as they committed many faux pas. Some lay on the ground to make it seem a war like situation, which it clearly was not. Some collected huge crowds shouting slogans around them and then shouted into their microphones about some vague conceptions of nationalistic fervour. However there were some good, thought provoking panel discussions and debates on various aspects of the attacks. It was a refreshing change to hear the voices of the people instead of only politicians. Never before has perhaps the media reached out for the opinions and views of the people as now. This change I hope shall be here to stay. The other feature which saw a great response was the call for citizen journalism by a few channels. People could send videos (through MMS) and pictures on the terror attacks. Most channels received a huge number of such clippings and many were telecasted. A participating audience is perhaps an advantage for the Media.
Of all the forms of journalism, the best quality work in India lies in print. In this case too print journalists did a much better coverage than their other counterparts. Not only was the coverage much more comprehensive but also of better quality. The attacks took place late into the night of 26th November, at around 9:40 pm. Most newspapers would have been ready for the next day by this time yet most of them worked overnight and managed to get on the scene of action to give a detailed account of the incident. Though there were many discrepancies in the stories by different newspapers, especially regarding the death and injured toll. The highlight of newspaper reports were definitely the photo coverage. Most photo journalists captured some great shots capturing the essence of all that these attacks stood for. The most abiding image was perhaps taken by the Times of India photographer of the terrorist which later on was taken alive by the Police. Apart from the photographs, most newspapers had some provocative columns, though a lot of them were simply powerful rhetoric too. It was heartening to see that the Media not just talked of the blame game, terrorism, Pakistan etc but gave equal space to the humane aspect of the colossal tragedy. It was definitely a more mature approach. A sense of being together was the need of the hour and newspapers and magazines, in their own way facilitated this.
The scale and nature of the attacks got the international media’s attention too. Leading papers like the Guardian carried front page stories on them. They refrained from making any political comments and reported just the tragedy. The columns denounced the loss of lives and strongly condemned them.
The Media is one of the most potent tools of the Indian society and directly bears on it. This unfortunate event has made us sit up and hold it accountable too. Emergencies like this one need to be handled with extreme care and acute precision, not to forget immense sensitivity. Though the freedom of the Media should not be curtailed but maybe guidelines issued and a general framework can be established in case of similar situations. The Government is currently mulling over such a proposal and hope that it will bring about the necessary changes. Let us hope that lessons (positive and negative) from this tragedy stay with us as a reminder.