Ranjona Banerji: Clickbait headlines that deceive readers

29 Mar,2019

By Ranjona Banerji


For the second time in under six months, horrendous news about a boarding school in the Dehradun area makes the news. After the gangrape that was hushed up by one set of school authorities, now a 12-year-old was beaten to death by his seniors and the body was buried by the school. Like in the first case, this school also decided to protect its reputation rather than report the murder to the authorities or indeed inform the parents. The cold-hearted ruthlessness and lack of compassion or understanding of justice chills one’s blood. These are schools. Imagine what they teach their children.

Dehradun is known for its schools and education is big business here and in some parts of Uttarakhand. But education as a beat is not big in the Dehradun area. Most school news – unless something like this happens – is limited to PR stuff in the local papers about some sports day or prize day. But given the impunity with which these schools behave – and in India this rarely happens minus political patronage – perhaps schools and education deserve a longer harder look. While we’re at it, the less said about government schools and their situation the better. The state education minister is better known for getting into fights with people than improving education in Uttarakhand.

It is true that schools are notoriously closed institutions and chary of media attention. If the excuse is the safety of students, well and good. But what we have seen in these two cases is schools which were not just lax and negligent but downright criminal in their actions. In both cases, the authorities decided to protect their reputations and the perpetrators. In one case, the rapists were just moved to another branch and in this latest case, nothing was done. These are institutions to whom people entrust their children. Instead of massive outrage led by the media, we have a few anodyne stories buried here and there while some campaign announcement by the prime minister gets top headlines.

And then we have the other problem about the presentation of this news. In both cases, the names of the schools involved were not named. However, headlines were written in such a way as to make readers think that these criminal acts were done at The Doon School. Certainly The Doon School is the area’s most famous school. It is also named for the area. But to use ‘Doon school covers up murder’ is just a cheap trick used to get reader interest while in fact protecting the reputation of the actual culprit.

Because I live in Dehradun, I was inundated with calls from people asking me if I could comment on this “rape” in The Doon School. This time, even journalists have twigged on that they’re being had by their own fraternity or perhaps the murder has not reached the national news big time yet. (Media probably still excited about Tom Vaddakan quitting the Congress to join the BJP?)

When news about the gangrape at a GRD World School outside Dehradun broke, some editions of the Times of India had headlined the stories ‘Doon school’. After strong objections from the Headmaster of The Doon School and some alumni, a clarification of sorts was issued. Now after this murder at Children Home Academy which is on the way to Rishikesh and not in Dehradun, the Nagpur edition of the Times of India again headlines the story as ‘Doon school’. Another clarification was issued, but what was the need to try the same stunt again?

That mischief is at hand and a clear desire for clickbait headlines cannot be doubted. Once might be a mistake (unlikely but might) but twice seems to many like deliberate targeting and by the Times of India particularly. Other news outlets which reported on the story headlined it, ‘School in Rishikesh’ or ‘School in Dehradun’. Therefore there was no direct need to try and make it sound like The Doon School was involved in anyway.

Also, one cannot underline this strange reluctance to name the schools where these crimes have taken place but at the same time try and malign a school which was not involved. Perhaps GRD and Children Home Academy are big advertisers and The Doon School is not? Is that the only way to ensure that TOI and Bennett Coleman won’t target you?

This is not even about elitism and those arguments. Because if the TOI or any other journalists really cared, they would hound the education department over the plight of government schools in Uttarakhand. And as far as schools like GRD World and Children Home Academy (what a name, given the circumstances) are concerned, stories should would concentrate on pressuring the education department for better and more stringent checks on those who open and run schools in the area. Gangrape and murder by students and then total coverups by the school authorities cannot be the norm, surely?

Clickbait headlines is just the worst way to deal with such terrible behaviour and actions. If you’re so with the zeitgeist, then have the courage to name and shame those actually guilty?


Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist and commentator. She is also Consulting Editor, MxMIndia. The views here are personal

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