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High-risk TV

by Bhishakha Dutta
Violent assault by ten gunmen shocked Mumbai and the world in late November. Many Indians were appalled by the bloodshed, but also by the way TV stations handled the events. Here are ten faults found with media coverage. [ By Bishakha Dutta ]

1) Unquestioning. How many gunmen were there actually? How many people actually died? How many boats came into Mumbai? How could two gunmen hold up a 350-plus room twin hotel like the Trident/Oberoi? Were bombs suspected to have been placed elsewhere in the city? Basic questions like this were not asked as the crisis was unfolding.

2) Speculative, not fact-based. The numbers of gunmen entering Bombay dropped from 20 to 25 to ten across three days, and from seven to ten at the Oberoi/Trident to merely two. This caused needless panic; many people thought there were still gunmen out there. Don’t report what is just said but can't be verified. At very least, question official statements.

3) Opinionated, not fact-based. What does “Pakistani involvement” mean? No distinction was made between individuals from Pakistan, organisations based in Pakistan and the Pakistani state. (In a hypothetical case, if a cell phone with calls to India were found somewhere else in the world after an atrocity, would that indicate “India’s” involvement?)

4) Simplistic. The coverage became a parable of good versus evil; “bravehearts versus cowards”, “unsung heroes versus villains” and then, even worse, “Pakistan versus India”.

5) Class-biased. Mumbai’s main train station, which millions use every day, was under attack. But TV coverage focussed almost exclusively on two five-star hotels where events were still unfolding.

6) Stupid. What exactly are assault victims supposed to say when asked how they feel? “Did you feel scared?” (No, I felt elated hearing bombs explode around me.)

7) Invasive. TV didn’t shy from interviewing Sabina Sehgal Saikia's husband on air when all facts pointed to her probable death.

8) Loaded. Constant use of emotionally-loaded terms: “terrorists” not “gunmen”, “dastardly”, “heinous”, “cowardly” et cetera.

9) Theatrical. Wasn’t there enough drama already? “Shattered glass, shattered glass,” one TV reporter hyperventilated in the Taj Hotel. What did she expect to find? A rare orchid?

10) Dangerous. Giving away the locations of people hidden at the two hotels. Ditto with jingoism masquerading as patriotism in the “Pakistan versus India” tenor of reporting.