Thursday, September 29, 2011

Trauma on television

Our chatty driver behind the Tata Sumo wheel happened to be a realist who read newspapers and magazines and hardly watched television. He said he had to work since childhood, confront the everyday harsh realities of life, and never had the time to escape into watching films, or soap operas or TV serials. Besides, those ever-hyped reality shows would not contribute to what he needed, and they were a waste of time.

As we passed through the narrow winding road at Pharping, realism struck when one of the co-passengers received a SMS that read something like this: Budddha Air crashes in Lalitpur, all feared dead, one survives.

I could not help visualize the grotesque images of victims, their mangled body parts, wreckage of the crash strewn all over. That is the familiar pattern of disaster coverage in our media, more particularly on television, our modern window into the world of current affairs. Fact is stranger than fiction, and oftentimes these days our media are the first in line to shape them for our absorption

However, it’s strange among us that even the self-proclaimed realists cannot confront every reality of life. We make exceptions and rules to suit our purpose, our morals, our culture, our deeply-held values. Mid-way to Hetauda, at about lunchtime, our driver put on a mask to disguise himself as a stranger, because, as he said, he did not want to be recognized by every road-side hotelier. Many of them had come to know him personally since he started driving along this 68-km Dakchhinkali-Hetauda highway some seven years ago. He did not want to disappoint every one of those businesses by not dropping off his passengers at their outlets for lunch. He could only choose one of them.

There are things worth hiding in life not because you want to conceal reality but because you don’t like to hurt the feelings and sentiments of people, not because you want to become arrogant, but because you want to be thoughtful, considerate. Of course, sometimes one could be self-referential at the same time. This driver said he was also embarrassed to have to choose one outlet over the others.

Of course, TV channels are not Sumo drivers. Neither are their passengers their TV-like audience. Yet, journalism and the driving profession seem to share some commonalities. In our case, I kind of felt our driver was a talking head from a current affairs show. You are entirely at the mercy of your driver to reach your destination just as you are of a trusted TV channel to confirm a fact, a given truth.

Our driver’s conscious decision to hide his face from his wayside patrons reminds one of a professional dilemma of journalism regarding selective communication of truth. Just because something is a fact or a truth does not mean it has to be showcased prominently, even in the news. Some truths are better to be underemphasized than highlighted, merely described than shown, or altogether excluded.

Recent news coverage of natural disasters and human tragedies has brought the issue of news selection into sharp focus. Take, for example the case of UK embassy wall collapse in the September 18 earthquake. Television channels appeared unconcerned with possible audience repulsion or disappointment in broadcasting the mangled and blood-drenched face of a girl who died with her father in that incident. Only a week following that grotesque image, TV channels delivered wide angle shots of body pieces of over a dozen dead individuals. One policeman was shown hurling a piece of leg, dismembered below the knee, down on a plastic wrap sheet. Then on Monday, some channels decided to show the wounded and blood-drenched chest of Faizan Ahamad Ansari, the general secretary of Islami Sangh Nepal. He was gunned down near Ghantaghar.

Yes, we have to agree that these are nothing new for our media and their audience. This happened regularly during the decade-long conflict. The grotesque images were everywhere. In fact, some would say, those were the images that actually helped to build moral pressure and hastened political compromise among warring sides for a new democratic order. And there are other disasters that provide a steady supply of such gruesome images. We are fed with them during floods. Don’t forget similar and routine mediated images from road and bus accidents.

Others may argue, culturally, too, we celebrate the dead with mass display of their bodies, placed on pyres, set in the open, on river banks. Bodies or faces of even those who die a natural death (private individuals or public figures) have long been a mainstay of our news. This is also true of dead animals. They are butchered publicly and their carcasses are left for everyone to see.

The irony is there is a big gap between our take on what something “is” and what it “should” be. Yes, television is gory. However, we hardly find anyone, including many television journalists, who will justify broadcasting such graphic images of the dead and their private, mangled bodies. For long, journalists, in principle have agreed to abide by the norms of decency and public taste. Their professional code of ethics -- the Code of Journalistic Ethics 2003 (Amended 2008) -- prohibits broadcasting images that may penalize the victims. For example, clause 6 reads: “Not publish, broadcast or produce-distribute any news or opinion with the use of language, sound, picture, figure, scene or the like in such a way as to make the victim suffer further pain.” Although there is no reference in the code in particular to “public taste”, clause 9 prohibits “publication or broadcast of horrific scene or picture”.

And yet, media outlets continue to deliver horrific scenes into our living rooms. And they do this without warning or disclaimers, entirely overlooking the fact that their audiences include the immediate family members of victims, as well as children or under aged population.

So why this continued inconsistency between ethics and practice? Are we a sadistic society in which we make media spectacles out of people’s lives, disrespect their privacy, ignore their individuality? The fact that there is no visible public outcry over such practice lends credence to this assumption. There is another theory. Experts of media coverage of human tragedies in disaster-prone countries have observed that overexposure to images of suffering and trauma has caused “compassion fatigue” in the public. People show widespread indifference and cynicism in such societies. Are we already into such a fatigue?

It is time we started asking such questions, and examining our professional values critically.

In Hetauda, where I moderated a session on shared learning on journalism among media professionals and people interested in media issues, participants did not fail to appreciate the expansion of our media landscape and expanding bounds of freedom. However, some noted that private investments had forced competition, leading to over-commercialization of their products and services.

Indeed, “quality” of media services and content is the next big issue that Nepali journalists and their employers will have to grapple with. When we tend to agree that we now have one of the freest press systems, we no longer have the excuse that our state constrains us. Of course, another issue companioning quality is the threat from non-state actors but that, we can hope, is a transitory one.

Freedom without responsibility, without accountability is a bird insisting on flying only with one wing. Since the government in a democracy has very limited role in controlling and guiding the press, self-regulation is the only way to ensure quality.

Just as our physical environments are in want of sanitation, our media products are in need of sanitization. The gatekeepers of images and information could learn from the Japanese media. During the earthquake and tsunami there earlier this year, viewers and audience were not shown a single dead body out of respect for the victims and their families. This incident was noted in China and other developed countries in the West and was applauded as exemplary in media decency and public taste.

Yes, there are images the media should decide to exclude, if not hide. As the prime drivers of information and images in this age, they must be mindful that the public and the consumers are their ultimate patrons and judges, not their competitors or ratings.

Published in Republica, September 28, 2011