It is the unkindest cut of them all, being eagerly damned by one’s peers. Muthi-ur-Rahman Siddiqui was a crime reporter in Bangalore’s Deccan Herald when he was arrested on August 31 last year. The city’s Crime Branch said the reporter was a part of a plot to assassinate several high-profile figures including an editor and a popular columnist in the name of jihad. Newspapers, especially the English ones, went to town with the news. Over the next two weeks, report after report spun one outrageous story after another, many times even doing away with the tokenism of quoting “anonymous sources”. The stories linked Rahman with the al-Qaeda, unravelled plots to bomb a nuclear station and a naval base, and spewed other spectacular fiction. The reporter spent 30 days in custody; eventually the National Investigation Agency could not find enough evidence to charge him. The case was dropped.
Our cover story “Framed by the news” looks into this coverage by prominent Bangalore English newspapers and finds that the basic protocols of journalism were ditched for sensationalism and the hunger to break stories. The Times of India comes the worst in this—the others only a shade better. Govind Krishnan V’s story, based on extensive interviews with people part of the newsroom and those who were on the ground shows that the media has much to be ashamed of.
It is not an easy job reporting a terror story. There is tremendous pressure on reporters to get exclusive breaks, and in the tyranny of the news cycle unverified claims and leaks find their way into the pages. The ethics of crime reporting need a relook, and anonymous tips-offs need serious editorial consideration before publication. Also, correcting errors of fact and apologising are just as important.
The change has to come from the top, and it is here that the editors have let down people they are supposed to guide and mentor. There are not more than a handful of prominent editors (both print and TV) in this country, and it doesn’t take much to set institutional guidelines to deal with situations like this one. However, since most of them are either busy anchoring or participating in loud, pointless talk shows run by manufacturing faux outrage, it is perhaps too much to ask.
We start two new sections: “Close-up”, short, evocative takes on stories of life around us, and “Infographic”, a visual narrative on a topical subject. Do send your feedback.
Saurav Kumar, Editor