The government has learned some lessons from its handling of previous bomb blasts. Or so we were repeatedly told by television news channels during their blanket coverage of the three serial bomb blasts that hit south and central Mumbai on July 13, killing 18 people and injuring 131. But the question that needs to be asked after watching the news coverage is: have our TV news channels learned any lessons from coverage of previous blasts? Apparently not.
Within minutes of the serial blasts, the Home Ministry in Delhi apparently confirmed that it was a ‘terror attack’. This led to an almost instant frenzy of speculation: what kind of bomb, whose signature did it have and who was responsible. A little over an hour after the first reports appeared on the channels, Headlines Today was already claiming that the Indian Mujahideen could be responsible for it. Other channels were only a little more circumspect. While they aired statements by Mumbai Police Commissioner Arup Patnaik saying repeatedly that it was too early to say who was responsible and that he would not speculate, their anchors continued to ask leading questions and to do precisely that: speculate.
And even before the first bits of forensic evidence that would indicate the nature of the bombs planted in the three locations had been collected, the guesswork about the bombs had begun on the news channels. Was it a crude bomb? Was RDX used? Was it an IED?
This clearly was not enough to fill the time. So TV crews were dispatched to the hospitals where the injured had been taken. After previous such incidents, there had been considerable discussion within the media about the use of gory pictures depicting the injured, or dead, individuals. This time again, the camera’s lens sought, and telecast, the most intrusive shots of people who were in no condition to object.
Amongst the English news channels that I watched, Headlines Today was the worst. It telecast scenes from the hospitals where people were being taken for treatment. No effort was made to mask the individual’s face or his naked body as doctors and nurses were shown treating the person. How can hospitals allow such intrusion and how can television channels justify such an invasion of the privacy of an injured person? Was this done because these were nameless, ordinary citizens and not the rich and the famous? Would anyone have dared to do the same if a well-known person had been injured?
After the August 2003 twin blasts at the Gateway of India and Zaveri Bazar, the Dean of J.J. Hospital, where many of the wounded had been taken, had put a blanket ban on all television channels entering the wards. Only after some persuasion did he allow some of us print journalists to go in, but without photographers. This time, it was obvious that the hospital authorities did not take quick enough action to stop television voyeurs from entering the hospital.
Apart from the atrocious and unacceptable assault on the privacy of injured people, the fact of so many people stomping around emergency wards obstructs the work of doctors and nurses. As responsible individuals, surely this is not too much to expect from the men and women of the media. Yet, it is amazing how the feeding frenzy after a disaster knocks out all common sense.
No, the news media never seems to learn. Well-known documentary filmmaker Rakesh Sharma had this to say during a discussion on Facebook following these blasts: “On 7/7 I was out filming. Post 26/11, I was out filming again from the 29th onwards. It was horrifying to see TV crews shooting on the streets of my city both during and after -- the sheer theatrics, the uncouth, insensitive questions, shoving people, trying to get that dramatic frame or sound bite. I wasn’t the only one repulsed. So widespread was the revulsion that four days later, many victims or their families just refused to speak to any TV crews! In fact, for the first time in my work life, I was welcomed into homes and hospital wards only because I said -- we're not TV; we are documentary film-makers! And really for the first time, I didn’t need to explain what a documentary is and no one asked which channel will it be shown on...”
On the morning after, once again the government came in for some praise, at least for its media management. Apart from the regular briefings by Home Minister P. Chidambaram on the previous night, there was a televised press conference addressed by him and the Maharashtra Chief Minister Prithviraj Chauhan the next morning. Unlike previous occasions, the government seemed to have understood the importance of being accessible to the media. Yet, despite Chidambaram pleading with the media not to speculate and to give investigating agencies time to arrive at some conclusions about who was responsible for the attacks, several channels had begun their own scenario building in real earnest.
Once again, Headlines Today trounced the others. It had named Pakistan the night before and continued to do so the next day. It invited two former RAW officials to give their views, Jaydev Ranade and Col. R.S.N Singh. Both spoke of the need for “pre-emptive intelligence” but Singh went further when he said India needed to “strike the heart that breeds such terrorists”. Not hard to guess which country he had in mind as he continued about the “proxy war”. Are these television guests handpicked to say what the channel wants its viewers to hear?
What stood out as different about the coverage of these blasts – as compared to the serial blasts on Mumbai’s suburban trains in July 2006 – was the role of ordinary citizens in providing visuals to the channels. Several channels were able to telecast images of the bombs going off thanks to cell phone users capturing the moment on their phones. Yet the dangers of using such footage without whetting were evident when shots of the body of a woman appeared in the initial telecasts. Fortunately, good sense prevailed and that image was smudged in subsequent telecasts.
Twitter and other social networking mediums also apparently played a role in conveying information, channeling offers for help and appealing to people to stay calm. This too is a new development as of the last couple of years. The Internet did help Mumbai’s beleaguered citizens during the downpour and floods of July 2005 but cell phone images and Twitter feeds are an advance on that.
Finally, this might sound like a pet peeve, but I still cannot understand why Delhi-based anchors of television news channels cannot get the pronunciation of names of places right. Zaveri bazaar has been distorted to ‘Zaaaveri’ bazaar, and that too after their own correspondents on the spot are saying it as it should be said: ‘Zaveri’ with a soft ‘a’.