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When the need is for restraint and caution



K. NARAYANAN

It is a difficult exercise for journalists all the time. Especially when reporting crimes relating to passion or depravity, or those involving juveniles. Suicides too come in this category. There is a dual obligation: to inform the public and to protect the identity of the victims. Both need to be carefully weighed, and even the words used have to be chosen with care, as readers tend to interpret them differently.

In recent times, reports of teachers “misbehaving” with students have been cropping up now and then. These refer to a teacher being arrested on “charges of misbehaving with girl students.” Generally the name of the arrested is mentioned, with no other details. In some instances, public protests and demonstrations follow and these are covered.

How much more should be reported, and how should the offence be described? Vidya Reddy, who has been active in the field of protecting children from sexual abuse and runs an organisation Tulir in Chennai, was upset with a report that appeared on January 31, 2009. She says there is a vast difference between the terms “sexually abusing” a child or children, and “misbehaving.” The report was about sexual abuse. The seriousness of the crime had not been conveyed by using the term “misbehaving.” In fact it tends to trivialise the offence, Vidya Reddy says, by using a quaint, almost Victorian term. There should be no queasiness when reporting such crimes against children, is her opinion.

The report she cites is rather bare, with brief, bald facts about a crime that stretched over a period of time and involved a number of children. The points needed careful handling but more details might have helped parents to be on guard and also those like Vidya Reddy who are carrying on a fight against child sexual abuse. It should be possible to do this keeping in mind the need to protect the victims. The recent trend in cases of murder and major crimes is to give detailed accounts of the happenings as given out by the police, which is only their version. But prudery seems to take over when sexual offences are reported, and even essential details are kept out.

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But that caution does not seem to be there all the time. As an indignant Latha Anantharaman (Palakkad) asks: why tar the name of a murder victim? She was referring to a PTI report from Patna (March 8, 2009) about a student of the Patna Arts and Craft College being shot “allegedly by her jilted lover.” A “lover” is one with whom a person has entered into a voluntary sexual relationship. The term “jilted” means dumping a person with whom one had been on intimate terms. But what the report later said was that the assailant used to stalk the victim and committed the crime when he was frustrated in his one-sided approaches.

What is needed in reports like this is careful and skilled editing, paying attention to the nuances of words, especially adjectives. As Latha points out, in cases where a woman is killed, there is speculation about her character. This is a deep-rooted social bias and journalists need to be careful with the language used in reports dealing with such situations. By a strange coincidence, the same day’s paper carried articles on the International Women’s Day.

* * * 

Mention of International Women’s Day brings me to a different issue raised by Rama Govindarajan (Bangalore). She finds “gender bias” in the coverage in The Hindu, and her “children are getting their first instructions on this topic” from reports in the paper. The samples she cites are: it is always “16 persons including eight women and a child” and never “including seven men and a child.” You never say “Miscreants entered the house of Ms X and threatened her” but it has to be “Miscreants entered the house of Mr. Y and threatened his wife.”

Prof. Rama has an interesting point, but I wonder how serious she is about the charge of “gender bias.” I would attribute such language to habit, a traditional way of writing. There is nothing factually wrong in the references quoted. They convey the information, which is what a news report is meant to do. The kind of rewriting needed to eradicate such perceived “bias” would be another challenging exercise.

Sarulakshmi, a II year student of Delhi University, has another issue, not difficult to resolve. Why identify women by their father’s/husband’s name throughout a report? Ms. Brinda Karat or Ms. Subhashini Ali can be addressed as Ms. Brinda or Ms. Subhashini in the second or later references, she suggests. A valid point.

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Quite a few readers have referred to a spate of reports in recent days on suicides, many of them by students. An educationist finds this disturbing, coming as they do at examination time. What I consider more disturbing is the prominence given to these reports, placing them at the top of the page, with big headlines. Some of these stories go into some detail about what “motivated” the person into this act. Where the person left no suicide note, the attribution of causes is nothing but speculation, hearsay.

I have always held, and have stated this earlier in my columns (June 12, 2006 and April 28, 2008), that there is no need to report individual suicides, unless there are social factors involving the public interest. A suicide is a private affair, meaning serious consequences for a family, and this is hardly taken into account. It is also dangerous to provide specific details of the suicide (“she poured kerosene over herself, and set herself ablaze,” one report said.) That can trigger similar thoughts in others, leading to what is called the “Werther effect” (reports of suicides triggering more suicides). This may also apply to the recent cases of self-immolation in Tamil Nadu.

For a change, there was one informative, socially purposeful analysis of parental pressures that could have caused the suicides of two schoolgirls ahead of exams. The reporter talked to parents, teachers, and the Sneha suicide prevention centre on how high expectations of parents and schools can push some to the brink. However, this useful analysis was confined to the Chennai City pages (March 12, 2009).

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The mention of “private affair” leads me to another related protest by a reader (S. Vaidyanathan, Diamond Creek, Australia). He was “appalled” by the photograph showing the parents of Aman Kachru, the medical college student, grieving as his body burns on the pyre (March 11, 2009). This, according to the reader, was “relentlessly, unabashedly, unempathically intruding into people’s most personal moments.” The editorial response to this complaint was that obviously the press and photographers were allowed to be present at the cremation ground (the father addressed the press) and so there was no intrusion. Whether the family allowed them or not, this was another occasion calling for humane restraint.

readerseditor@thehindu.co.in

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