Ranjona Banerji: Ugliness in coverage and portrayal of Sushant Singh Rajput’s death on News TV

16 Jun,2020

By Ranjona Banerji


The death of actor Sushant Singh Rajput was not just one more social tragedy and a huge loss of talent. It was a media tragedy. Or, let me qualify that: it was one more hammer blow for the credibility of the Indian media.

I will not pretend to sit on some fictional moral high horse here. Journalism is not a happy job most times. The essence is to wade through muck. And by doing so, you are bound to upset a number of people. Yellow journalism, “tabloid” journalism, the gutter press, ambulance-chasers… none of the descriptions are new. We’ve always had to deal with them, and if usually they are unfair, often they are not. And anyone who has worked in a newsroom knows there are times when you make tough decisions, when you “sensationalise” X over Y and that you do it to increase readership. The cynic lives in us all and thrives in newsrooms.

But this worst of us gets amplified by television “journalism”. I understand that television by its nature is intrusive. A reporter with a notebook and a lone cameraperson clicking away or even several reporters with notebooks and jostling camerapersons will never be as disturbing as a large bunch of television reporters shouting into microphones accompanied by camerapersons and their large equipment.

We also know that these journalists either have strict instructions to get as much information as quickly as possible to beat the competition and/or to get as much different information as fast as possible and/or the journalists themselves want to make their name and fast! Sensitivity and sense both get lost in this fracas. And the result is the ugliness that happened in the coverage and portrayal of Mr Rajput’s death on TV.

BUT. There are ways and there are ways. Shoving a microphone into the face of a grieving parent and aggressive questioning is never going to win you brownie points with your viewing audience nor win you any awards. Even if your viewing audience are voyeurs – which they are – the large part will be repelled. Most people expect there to be dignity accorded to the dead and TV seems unable to understand that.

The lowest in terms of any standards in this case appeared to be Aaj Tak, from the India Today group. And it is apparently India’s most popular and watched news channel. But change the name and for the most part it’s hard to tell the difference in the rubbish they spew on a regular basis.

Mr Rajput’s death was more poignant because it was suicide. This started off another whole problem with the way the term “committed suicide” is used in India and the insensitivity involved in such cases. There are several media guidelines available on the coverage of suicide and especially celebrity suicide which can cast a larger pall of sadness over the general public. Lurid descriptions of death, photographs of the dead, all these only add to the problem. And the Indian media broke simple good sense on every one of them.

Added to that was the bandwagon problem: trying to score points via mental health awareness. Suddenly, every channel has “discussions” on mental health, linked to depression and suicide. Most of these were superficial in the extreme and will have no long-term effect at all. If you add to that the space given to charlatans, self-publicists, random “gurus” and godmen you get an unholy mess of toxic slime that can only cause more damage.

Sadly, you and I know that the more people watch such channels, all the anger on social media notwithstanding, the more this sort of insensitivity will continue. One sees already the sort of filth that is shared with impunity on social media, much faster than any news source can get to it. It would be terrible though if the worst of WhatsApp became the yardstick by which journalists measure themselves.

Or are we already there?


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

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