Trial by Media
Norms of Journalistic Conduct, Press Council of India, 2019
Newspapers and news agencies while reporting on suicide cases shall not:
1. Publish and repeat stories about suicide prominently.
2. Use language which sensationalizes or normalizes suicide.
3. Explicitly describe the method used or provide details about the site/location.
4. Use sensational headlines or graphics like photographs, video footage.
*These guidelines hold true keeping in mind the prima facie cause of SSR’s death as suicide
Over the years, Indian media has played a pivotal role in unearthing huge scams — from The Hindu’s Bofors Expose to Tehelka’s Operation West End. However, there have been multiple instances where the costs far outweighed the benefits of investigative media endeavors.
9’o Clock Judges
In the recent past, Indian media outlets have been subjected to intense critique by the public for their insensitive reportage. Although the media must be given due credit for playing its part in accelerating the course of events leading up to a CBI enquiry in the SSR case, we must closely inspect the collateral damage associated with this ordeal.
The Fight for TRP
From distasteful edits of movie dialogues to dramatized recreations of the crime scene, media houses resorted to deploying sensational, eyeball-grabbing tactics in what has turned into a vicious cycle to garner the attention of viewers.
Extreme Mental Strain
A majority of media houses went into harrowing details and theories regarding the alleged suicide. Multiple WHO reports suggest that such coverage can prove to be detrimental to the mental health of viewers (with differing levels of severity).
Case in point, suicide rates spiked by ~10% in America following the death of actor Robin Williams in 2014 and a study conducted by the scientific journal PLOS One suggested that extensive media coverage of Williams’ death “might have proved the necessary stimulus for high-risk segments of the U.S. population (e.g. middle-aged men in despair) to move from suicidal ideation to attempt.”
No Respect for Privacy
Journalists were seen harassing Sushant’s family (amongst others) for comments barely hours after his death. At a time of grieving and mourning, most media channels failed to respect the privacy of his close ones.
Since the incident, the media has pronounced multiple people guilty for the unfortunate incident. Ranging from character assassinations to screen-time for experts and hatemongers, the news channels have done it all. Such reporting is bound to have an adverse impact on all parties involved (as was seen during the erroneous reporting of Sridevi’s death).
We do acknowledge the catalytic role played by the media here but the manner in which it conducted itself was nothing short of a disaster.
In short, should the media have done a better job at handling this? Most definitely.
How? The answer isn’t straightforward by any stretch of imagination so we leave you with this:
Can investigative journalism be conducted efficiently bearing in mind the final outcome AND maintaining the sanctity of social & cultural norms as discussed in this case?