When you want to understand what’s happening with a story that everybody is talking about, whether it’s a university protest, a murder or a financial scam, whom do you trust to give you all the information? News platforms, right? Not everyone can go to the scene, speak to the people involved and understand how the case is being handled in court. So we depend on the people who can.
This puts an incredible responsibility on news media – responsibility to deliver the information accurately, to get all sides of the story and to outline the order of events. So when this responsibility is not taken seriously, when it’s rife with scandal and conjecture rather than facts and figures, the media creates its own ‘alternative’ justice system, conducting independent investigations, encouraging public speculation, holding trial and giving sentences.
Here’s a detailed look at the anatomy of this alternative justice system.
By choosing to cover one thing more than another, or choosing to ignore one story in favour of another, news media decides for you what you should consider important. By setting its own priorities, it prioritises for you. The problem with this is that when the people prioritise one thing over another, policymakers follow too.
In August 2017, many parts of the country experienced floods and many human lives were lost. However, the case of a Mumbai-based doctor falling into a manhole during the floods in the metro dominated headlines around the country. This coverage brought people’s attention to the problems with the city corporations. PILs were filed and action was taken. Meanwhile, the 520 lives lost and 1.72 crore people affected from just 19 districts of Bihar were almost completely ignored. The state government was mainly occupied with its political power struggle. Some ignorant ministers even blamed the flood on rats. So while justice was served in that one area in Mumbai, thousands in Bihar have been left to rebuild their lives on their own.
News media has the power to turn the heads of the people and government in any direction. If this responsibility isn’t taken seriously, it can lead to a gross miscarriage of justice.
News media is a service, yes, but it’s also a business – and like any business, it needs to hit the numbers to be sustainable. But, is providing the service more important or hitting the numbers? Well, it depends on whom you ask.
The media landscape today is pretty dynamic. Every news channel and organisation wants to be the first to report ‘breaking news’ and get as many views and TRPs. So, it’s not uncommon for a newsroom to let journalistic ethics take a back seat. That means grabbing eyeballs with the most sensational news stories or even just sensationalising stories that could have been covered more respectfully.
The reportage we saw about veteran actor Sridevi’s death is the best example of this. Considering that the death was sudden, the authorities were still investigating the cause of death when the media began its own speculations. From the anchors questioning her choice of beverage to showing visual effects of the actress floating in a bathtub, it seemed like the media was in a race with the authorities to figure it out. When the case built by the authorities was not scandalous enough, they even went so far as to make their investigation look botched. This only encouraged the public to add to the speculations, guessing if it could be the work of Botox and plastic surgery. Even the constant loops of her dead body being carried out were toeing the line of irresponsible journalism.
Being sensitive to all parties – the victim and their family, the perpetrators, law enforcement – involved in the due process of law rests on the shoulders of media. Numbers or no numbers.
The media can use its knees to squat and lift a case up or pull it down. Investigations carried out by the media can be real assets to exposing criminals and making sure they are brought to justice.
During the Jessica Lal murder case, the media pointed out loopholes in the investigation and forced the judiciary to take a fresh look at the case. Tehelka’s investigation and reporting of cricket match-fixing scandals and Operation West End to expose corrupt defence deals are landmark cases that show how news media can be a sharp tool against crime. Indian Express’ contribution to studying the Panama Papers and holding the Indian perpetrators accountable demonstrate how news organisations can also be the catalysts of justice.
But sometimes, they go too far and in the process, they become liabilities rather than assets. The Supreme Court has time and again criticised the media’s role in the miscarriage of justice by creating a high-pressure situation to deliver a verdict based on what the nation wants, rather than the facts. This can be seen in the Arushi Talwar case, where the victim’s parents were convicted, even though there was plausible deniability – all because popular public opinion, aided my media conjecture, demanded it. Even in the Nithari serial murders, the trial court convicted the main accused Mohinder Pandher due to media and public influence, despite having no substantial evidence.
Here’s the bottom line – What news media talks about has impact. Not only on our minds and psyche but also in real life. Court judgments are skewed to the point that verdicts eventually have to be reversed when the court reconsiders a case after the media coverage of the case has dialled down. That’s what happened in the case of the Nithari serial murders, where one of the charges against Mohinder Pandher was overturned. This is also true in cases where the government changes its stance due to media coverage. After the extensive coverage of the floods in Mumbai died down, attention was given to Bihar and some flood relief action was brought to them.
This means that the political and legal will to do the right thing exists, but excessive and unfair media coverage can be a deterrent to this justice. While the intention behind news media vigilantism may be good, the outcome is not always positive.
Do you think media vigilantism is effective and should be encouraged or do you agree that it must be exercised only when appropriate? Tell us in the comments below.