News works very differently in different parts of the world. For example, in England, the media is generally unbiased, but the newspapers and tabloids pick sides. Meanwhile, in the USA, the newspapers are unbiased but the media isn’t. In India, however, there is no bias, meaning that almost every single media organization is a tool to spread propaganda for the government– or, more specifically, the television media. They go on tirades trying to spin narrative after narrative, choosing to focus on conducting a media circus instead of reporting on the numerous things currently plaguing the country.
Here, journalism died a long time ago.
In June 2020, a very talented Bollywood actor named Sushant Singh Rajput died by suicide in his home. What has followed since is what can be deemed as a witchhunt by the media that has been sensationalized beyond belief, without even having a shred of decency or discipline when it comes to reporting someone’s death. The for reporting on suicides urge the media to maintain extra caution when it comes to celebrity suicides. The guidelines include refraining from speculation, avoiding explicit descriptions and detailed information on the method used, avoiding language that sensationalizes suicide, and exercising caution in using photos. India too, has adopted a set of guidelines in a similar vein. But when you talk about the Indian media handling deaths, all of that goes right out the window.
Lack of training on reporting sensitive topics
From the moment news of his death has broken out, the Indian media ran with it. Rajput’s Instagram posts were analyzed for “clues” on his state of mind. The header image of his Twitter account was scrutinized, while anchors speculated on his depression and whether he had financial difficulties. Many news channels ran with extremely insensitive headlines, and some of them even broadcast images of Rajput’s body lying on his bed– a violation of the Press Council’s guidelines. There are certain ethics to be followed when it comes to covering deaths, and it is abundantly clear that the Indian news media either never learned this or blatantly chooses to ignore it. You are supposed to handle it with the utmost sensitivity and not sensationalize it. The news should not be broken into the world before informing the families first, and you most definitely should not barge into the deceased’s parent’s home and harass them for a quote.
What this brings into light is that most journalists handling these stories do not receive any training on how to report on them sensitively. And while there are clear guidelines publicly available on how to report on suicide sensitively, many big newsrooms which rarely accord importance to mental health choose to ignore this. All they care about is increasing their show’s ratings.
The corporate and government ties of the media
These media houses are essentially funded by corporations that influence the narrative quite a lot. These corporates only care about one thing: money. And the only way they can earn said money is by garnering high show ratings or TRP (Television Rating Point). Therefore, these media houses are often encouraged to spin stories and offer up as ridiculous narratives as possible so that people would tune in and it would boost the show’s ratings. It is the audience’s fault too for, especially in the pandemic, people are searching for entertainment. And since most of the daily primetime shows are currently halted, we have turned to this spectacle and are encouraging the lives of these people being torn apart at the seams, just so we could have something entertaining to consume.
It’s not just the corporations; these news outlets have very real and public government ties. Zee News is led by Rajya Sabha MP Dr Subhas Chandra whose closeness with the BJP has been very public in recent years. He has even campaigned for the party’s leaders. Republic TV, until recently, was owned by Kerala NDA leader Rajeev Chandrashekhar. The Ambani brothers hold significant ownership of the Network 18 and are also closely related to the director of Hindustan times. The problem with such outlets is their desire to express opinions rather than showing facts. Expressing opinions is a good thing, but these opinions need to be backed with correct information. A news channel’s job is to assemble the facts and tell us the truth. Not spew propaganda to please the government. What India needs is an independent and unbiased media with no ties to any government. And it is the job of the people of this country to help cultivate a space for one.
Cultural attitude towards drugs and mental illness
A few days after his death, foul play was suspected, and a probe into Sushant’s apparent murder was launched, with his ex-girlfriend Rhea Chakraborty being investigated after being accused of abetment to suicide. And hence becoming the main target of media harassment. Just recently, in a new development, Chakraborty had been asked to appear at the NCB (Narcotics Control Bureau) headquarters in Mumbai for questioning in a drugs case linked to Sushant Singh Rajput’s death. Her brother Showik Chakraborty and the late actor’s manager Samuel Miranda have also been accused and arrested for supposed links with drug cartels. Rhea has now been placed in judicial custody. The drug she was arrested for was marijuana, consumption of which is currently illegal in India.
This brings me to the cultural attitude when it comes to portrayal of mental illness in India. To date, mental illness is largely considered a taboo and ‘not real.’ People ignore science and medicine and instead, ridicule people who are suffering from these problems. Or they even blatantly refuse to accept that such problems exist and deserve to be given just a serious treatment as cancer. They make excuses, saying that if a person looked so happy, how could they be depressed? Mental health has a long way to go in this country, and the media making a spectacle of Sushant’s depression isn’t really helping the cause.
Then there is the regressive portrayal of drug use. Drug abuse is usually viewed as a moral issue and that the person who has fallen victim to it is evil and needs to be punished instead of getting treated. Our society as a collective needs to do better in handling people who have participated in substance abuse, and put them through rehabilitation instead of punishing them.
While the public displays this ignorant mentality, the media houses exploit the public’s ignorance and spin stories, which is sad because they are meant to be the ones fighting it.
Shifting of narrative and blatant display of sexism in the media and public
Indian news houses have broken every single rule of journalism during this witch hunt. From mobbing Rhea when she was called in for questioning (the pandemic hasn’t disappeared, what about social distancing?), to harassing her apartment complex’s security guards and food delivery workers, to even making up senseless narratives from her texts because the news anchors couldn’t understand millennial language. They have spun story after story, narrative after narrative, without corroborating the facts. They have questioned every single aspect of her life and turned her life into a spectacle. (Mind you, she had not even been found guilty of murdering Rajput yet.)
— Siddharth (@DearthOfSid) August 27, 2020
Within days, the narrative has shifted from the death and apparent suicide of Sushant Singh Rajput to Rhea Chakraborty. She has been slandered, scorned, trolled by the media and public alike. She has found herself at the centre of a storm of allegations, conspiracy theories, rumours, and unconfirmed reports. For months, Chakraborty has been trolled on social media. She’s been called names like “fortune huntress” and “mafia moll,” and has been accused of getting Rajput addicted to drugs and driving him to suicide.
This has also exposed the blatant sexism of the people of this country. In the two months since Rajput’s death, irresponsible news channels and their devout followers have been directing a barrage of outrage at the people they claim are responsible. It is necessary to take into account how India’s Bollywood-watching audience bared its deep, ingrained sexism while apparently demanding ‘justice’ for the actor.
Another example of this is of veteran actor Sridevi, who passed away in 2018, when a male reporter climbed into a bathtub on live television in order to investigate her allegedly mysterious death. These reports were supplemented by rumours of a ‘botox treatment’ gone wrong. They have turned women into objects, not at all considering that they are humans too, while their male counterparts are generally coddled and defended.
Now, I in no way support Chakraborty if it so happens that she indeed had a hand in Rajput’s death; but I think what she does deserve, is a fair trial without speculation. The one rule of journalism is that media should not speculate an ongoing investigation because it spins a narrative in the minds of the people, and they form their own opinions on the basis of these things that they see on the news. The media trial that Chakroborty is currently receiving is unethical in the sense that it can severely hamper the investigation being conducted by lawmakers. This probe should have not been conducted in the public eye at all, and the details should only have been disclosed when they came to a verdict. I understand the public wants to know what happened, but there is a way these cases are supposed to be handled, especially by the news houses.
The media is conducting baseless investigations instead of focusing on the real problems of the country
But now, instead of focusing on the real problems of the country, you will find all the news channels either spreading senseless propaganda, talking about nepotism or mafia interference in the Indian film industry, or conducting their own investigations and speculations about Rajput’s death. Subjects like Chinese presence on the border, floods in over half a dozen states, problems being faced to bring the economy back on its feet, the alarming drop in India’s GDP (gross domestic product), the situation in the two newly carved Union territories of Jammu & Kashmir, and Ladakh, the Rohingya Muslims issue, investigations relating to Delhi riots, progress on CAA or fight against Coronavirus have all vanished from prime time TV.
India has now overtaken Brazil to become the country with the second-highest COVID cases in the world, and the country reports record-breaking numbers of new cases almost daily, but instead, the media has chosen to focus on drugs and what food item Rhea Chakraborty ordered from god knows where and what they could possibly imply.
Bottom line: the media nor the public is not qualified to investigate this case
Let me make this very clear, I understand that people want to get to the bottom of this debacle. Sushant Singh Rajput was a public figure loved by millions, and if there was foul play, we all want to find out who is responsible. But that does not mean that you, or I, or any of the “journalists” you see on the news every day, are qualified to conduct investigations and draw conclusions. We are in no position to investigate this tragedy. We are not knowledgeable, nor are we qualified. A job of a journalist is to assemble all the facts and report on it, not spin baseless narratives while scorning anyone who they deem fits the story.
The job of investigating Rajput’s death is of the police, the lawmakers, and the various crime branches of the country. Not you, not me, not the reporters, not the public. There are individuals qualified to carry out a thorough and just investigation into the case, and the media is not helping by doing what they continue to do daily on our TV screens in the name of news.
It has become abundantly clear that the journalists of this country are not trained to handle sensitive subjects, or they just choose not to follow basic journalism ethics. They go on air every single day and create their own narrative, vilifying any and every person they think is in the wrong, completely disregarding social distancing norms, and harassing and bullying innocent individuals in the name of journalism.
These people that you see on TV every day are not journalists. Take it from someone who has studied to become one. The way the media has sensationalized this case is definitely one of the lowest points in Indian journalism. It is a shame on us as citizens too, that we continue to let this happen.
The need for independent and unbiased media in this country has become extremely necessary. And until this state of affairs doesn’t change, journalism in Indian media is well and truly dead.
Photo: joegoaukiffi3 via Flickr