Ranjona Banerji: Of ‘out-castes’ and the art of assuming viewers know everything!

07 Jul,2017

By Ranjona Banerji

 

Somewhere along in the line, in trying to be “different” and to stand out, we appear to have lost the process of journalism. Having worked for an afternoon tabloid for several years, I understand very well the need to provide a different aspect of an ongoing story, to provide the reader with other perspectives, not just parrot what the morning papers have said. But even in those hoary old days, we knew we had to maintain the essence and the nuts and bolts of the story in question.

The trend nowadays is to assume that everyone knows what you are talking about, as if every viewer who has just opened the newspaper or switched on the television has been doing nothing else but watching and reading the same thing for hours. This assumption only confuses and frustrates.

A case in point would be the recent communal tension in Bengal, which has led to death and destruction in the Baduria-Bashirhat regions of 24 Parganas. Since most Indian newspapers are local-centric, regional news is often sketchily presented. So obviously, when I am sitting in Dehra Dun, I cannot except to get full coverage of a communal explosion in a district of Bengal.

What I did get from Day 2 is a full report of a resultant fight between Bengal governor KN Tripathi and Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee. Given our obsession with the doings of politicians, this fight overshadowed the actual events. Social media only highlighted the viewpoints of those who posted on the comment and was therefore coloured by the political perspective of the poster.

The details were vague and this is what I have managed to glean after hours of trawling the internet for news reports, not opinions. A Class X student put up an insulting Facebook post either about Prophet Mohammed or about a Muslim holy site – not even this is clear. This led to huge anger amongst the Muslim community in the area which went on a rampage and looted and burnt shops, set up road and rail blockades. The local BJP unit decided to fight the rampaging Muslims. The police initially either did too little or was not able to control the situation. At least one person, a local RSS worker, has since died.

The BJP complained to the governor, the governor instructed the chief minister to do her job without favouring any one community, the chief minister got furious with the governor for running his office like an RSS branch and politics overwhelmed a dangerous ground situation.

Other news agencies concentrated on the growing aggression of Muslims in Bengal after Banerjee’s appeasement policies. Times Now, which has apparently officially turned into a militant Hindu news channel, advertised a story about pockets of Bengal where Hindus are “out-castes” and Islamists run the show. The subeditor in me balked at the use of “out-castes” when the word they may have been looking for is “outcast”, which is also, however, a questionable usage. Even worse, the intention is to create the impression that the whole of Bengal is in the grip of some Islamist fist. It may be pointed out that BJP- and RSS-related websites have been trying to convince the world about this for years now, fomenting hatred and playing up the dangers of a border with Bangladesh. It is also interesting that the series of deaths from mob violence over the cow has not affected Times Now quite so much.

 

However, whatever one’s political leanings and whatever related elements emerge from an ongoing story, the first rule of journalism must be to remind readers of the beginning and the trajectory of the initial event. Decades ago, the stylesheet at Living Media instructed us to write “Prime Minister so and so” every time the name appeared because we cannot assume that everyone knows the Prime Minister’s name.

Now that rule has been turned on its head and we are left to imagine all the facts while being presented with a series of confusing spins.

 

Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist and columnist. She is also Consulting Editor, MxMIndia. The views here are her own.

 

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