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Sensitivity and professionalism: The twin mantras for conflict reporting


By Kalpana Sharma

Should the Indian media -- print and electronic -- discuss norms that govern the way conflict is covered? This question has taken on increasing urgency since the terror attacks in Mumbai on November 26, 2008. The protracted gun battle between 10 terrorists and hundreds of National Security Guards, Mumbai police, members of the Rapid Action Force, commandos from the navy, and army personnel, that began at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST) and turned into a siege at two of south Mumbai's best-known luxury hotels, the Taj Mahal Palace hotel and the Oberoi-Trident hotel as well as the little-known Jewish Centre at Nariman House in Colaba, received unprecedented continuous live coverage over three nights and two days.

Once the crisis ended, the media's role became the focus of considerable criticism and discussion. Was it too much? Did the media obstruct the work of the security forces? Were the cameras and journalists too intrusive and insensitive in the face of such a human tragedy? Was there too much unsubstantiated and incorrect information conveyed on live television, causing panic? Was the tone of the reporters such that it added to the tension and the panic?

Behind these questions lies a demand that the media, as a principal source of information in disaster and conflict situations, remain accurate, professional, sensitive and responsible. These qualities should apply to the media at all times, but become particularly relevant during times of crisis as November 26 demonstrated.

The need for higher levels of professionalism that embody these qualities is further accentuated in an age that veteran BBC reporter Martin Bell termed the "decade of the dish", when 24-hour news channels can instantly communicate information and news from even remote parts of the country and the world.

The impact of such continuous and live coverage of war and conflict is summed up in this quote from Mark Miller, author of 'How TV Covers War', in the book New Challenges for Documentary, edited by Alan Rosenthal (University of California, 1998):

"Watching the news, we come to feel not only that the world is blowing up, but that it does so for no reason, that its ongoing history is nothing more than a series of eruptions, each without cause or context. The news creates this vision of mere anarchy through its erasure of the past and its simultaneous tendency to atomise the present into so many unrelated happenings, each recounted through a series of dramatic, unintelligible pictures... And so we have the correspondent, solemnly nattering among the ruins, offering crude 'analysis' and 'background', as if to compensate us for the deep bewilderment that his medium created in the first place."

In Mumbai, we saw much of this in the live coverage on different Indian channels. The attack was unprecedented, but the reporting failed to put the ongoing and dramatic battle in any perspective. For example, few outside Mumbai would have realised that the battle was confined to the southern tip of a very big city, and that the rest of the city was unaffected. Nor were people reminded that Mumbai had seen other terror attacks in the recent past, albeit not so dramatic. Even the immediate past was erased as television crews forgot that 58 people had already been slaughtered at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus even before the attackers laid siege to the two hotels. The present was endlessly telecast, with reporters expected to talk ceaselessly with very little new information. It left viewers uninformed and reduced to believing that they were watching something unreal.

And the "deep bewilderment" that Miller speaks of is something that most viewers will endorse. During the first few hours no one seemed to understand what had happened, least of all the journalists on the spot. Their bewilderment, and that of viewers, was compounded by the absence of any kind of authoritative voice -- from the police or the state government. Conflicting information kept flashing on different channels. The number of attackers varied, estimates of the dead and injured changed by the moment, the number of people held hostage in each hotel remained guesswork. No one appeared in charge, and the media attempted to get information from multiple sources, often telecasting it live without double-checking.

While the media coverage of November 26 is likely to remain a talking point for some time to come, the criticism around it raises questions that are relevant to the conduct of the media in general, and of its coverage of a range of conflict situations, in particular.

The issues it has raised include the need for perspective in media reporting -- of a 'before and after' the event. In the excitement of reporting something like a protracted terror attack, this is the first casualty. The immediate obliterates the past; it erases all sense of the underpinnings of an event that can be traced to developments in the recent past or distant past. Without that kind of perspective, an understanding of the developments gets exaggerated out of proportion and distorted.

A relevant example of how the lack of history and perspective on an issue distorts people's understanding of a conflict is the reporting in the Western media on the recent Israeli air strikes on Gaza. Writing in The Independent, Robert Fisk, who has covered the Middle East for decades, writes:

"How easy it is to snap off the history of the Palestinians, to delete the narrative of their tragedy, to avoid a grotesque irony about Gaza which -- in any other conflict -- journalists would be writing about in their first reports: that the original, legal owners of the Israeli land on which Hamas rockets are detonating live in Gaza.

"That is why Gaza exists: because the Palestinians who lived in Ashkelon and the fields around it -- Askalaan in Arabic -- were dispossessed from their lands in 1948 when Israel was created and ended up on the beaches of Gaza. They -- or their children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren -- are among the one-and-a-half million Palestinian refugees crammed into the cesspool of Gaza, 80% of whose families once lived in what is now Israel. This, historically, is the real story: most of the people of Gaza don't come from Gaza.

"But watching the news shows, you'd think that history began yesterday, that a bunch of bearded anti-Semitic Islamist lunatics suddenly popped up in the slums of Gaza -- a rubbish dump of destitute people of no origin -- and began firing missiles into peace-loving, democratic Israel, only to meet with the righteous vengeance of the Israeli air force."

Fisk's words have a definite resonance in India, particularly when it comes to reporting events in conflict zones like Kashmir or the northeast. Here, an understanding of history is essential while reporting. Yet, quite often, such a perspective is missing, particularly from journalists who "parachute" into conflict situations in these areas and report on them. The perspective of the more rooted journalists, often those who belong to these regions, is overlooked as they are deemed to be too close to the situation. Yet, it is these journalists who daily face the dilemmas of reporting on their conflict zones as Muzamil Jaleel from Kashmir and Anjulika Thingnam from Manipur graphically illustrate in their articles. They have to face the questions of the official agencies, of the people, and of the militant organisations. In both Kashmir and Manipur, journalists have been beaten up and even killed for what they reported. Conflict reporting for them is not a theory; it is a daily and hazardous lived experience.

The second issue that the November 26 coverage underlines is the importance of accuracy at all times, but particularly during situations of crisis where the information conveyed by the media affects the lives of many ordinary people who are either caught in the midst of it or are waiting anxiously for news of their kin who are embroiled in the situation. For the Indian media, this has become increasingly difficult, as often reliable and official sources of information simply do not exist, as happened on November 26. What then should journalists do? Should they announce numbers without adequate qualification, or should they wait until more accurate information is available? Peter Horrocks, head of the BBC newsroom in London, has this to say on the subject in an interview to Agenda:

"After 2005, we were careful to source all information about casualties, causes and deaths, and also to provide helpline information to concerned friends and relatives. It is always also important to us that as far as possible, next of kin do not receive first news about their loved ones from our news coverage, and that we are careful not to make uncertain times any worse by broadcasting information we are not confident about."

In conflict zones like Kashmir and the northeast, journalists are constantly faced with the problem of verifying official information as there is often a considerable divergence between what the government agencies put out and what they observe on the ground.

Third is the vital question of sensitivity, something Horrocks also mentions in the above quote. Increasingly, viewers are reacting negatively to the microphone thrust in the faces of victims, or their kin, even before they have had a chance to recover. Banal questions like: "How do you feel?" are routinely asked. A newspaper report following the November 26 attack described how one of the policemen who had survived the attack had begged a colleague to keep watch and ensure that the media did not get anywhere near him. He was tired of re-living the trauma and constantly recounting the night of terror. Yet, few respected his right to have the time to regain his equilibrium.

So, how does the media tell the human story without traumatising the very people about whom it wishes to report? Does this require special skills and training, or does good professional training as journalists equip you to deal with such situations?

Then there is the question of responsibility. In times of war, or terror attacks, does the media have a special responsibility to ensure that what it reports does not get in the way of operations by the security forces? Or is its job to report all it sees and hears without considering the consequences? This question has been raised repeatedly in the Indian context, ever since the Kargil war between India and Pakistan in 1999 became the first televised war seen in the country. Is some form of self-regulation needed at such times? Who will set these norms? The News Broadcasters' Association, the newly formed group that includes 24-hour news channels, has arrived at a code. But how this code will be implemented remains unclear. Yet, unless the initiative comes from the media, the likelihood of government interference is strong.

These questions arise not just in times of war or terror but also when the media is confronted with caste or communal conflict. As essays in this issue of Agenda emphasise, the media's interpretation and reporting of such conflicts determines attitudes and an understanding of events. It is all too easy to report the "official" version without investigating events independently, as the majority of media tends to do. It is also easy to forget past events or events that are often not reported, when an issue takes centrestage, because a personality or a political group is involved, as in caste conflict. The need for the media to have a sense of history, of perspective, and of independence becomes imperative in situations where the victims are also the powerless, those who have no access to the media and, through it, to the decision-makers.

With the growth of the reach and the power of the media in India, and the daily dose of different types of conflicts that it must cover, there is an urgent need to pause and assess conflict reportage. This is as good a time as any to put in place not just checks and balances that will ultimately enhance the media's credibility but also institutions that can train journalists to handle the increasingly complex arenas of conflict from which they must report.

InfoChange News & Features, February 2009