The word ‘media’ appears to mean many things in various cultural contexts. I’m trying to unpack some of them here.
For historians, it is a geographical name for an ancient country and former province of the Persian Empire in the northwestern part of modern Iran. For sociologists and anthropologists, it implies a medium of cultivation, conveyance, or expression.
For scientists, media often refers to a solid, liquid or semi-solid designed to support the growth of a population of microorganisms or cells via the process of cell proliferation. If you’re a physician like me, media denotes the middle layer of an organ system or body passage (like your gut or bladder or uterus) or blood vessel or lymph vessel, usually consisting of smooth muscle fibres.
What it does mean to all of us, regardless of our professions, is the everyday usage to refer to agencies of mass communication, be it print media, television broadcasting or the vast and uncharted waters of social media. Just about everything we say, hear, watch, read and write is media now.
Our lives are all media. So is this rambling post that you are reading.
What it has also come to mean, in the past few months, is the shrill and unending cacophony of death, disease and destruction while the COVID-19 pandemic, an unprecedented global and national economic crisis and an equally unprecedented mental health crisis, unfolded in front of us. As we work from home, and distance from each other, ironically enough, our lives and privacy seem to become increasingly compromised. The workplace has now entered our personal space (physically and emotionally), with adverse mental health consequences. So has news reporting.
This isn’t too much of a surprise as reporting has always involved the negotiation of the fine line between where individual privacy/dignity ends and public interest/welfare begins. However, the lacunae in our lives created by COVID-19 has had the media now rush in to fill that gap with voyeuristic information. Did we really need to have the unfortunate events that occurred in the life and death and afterlife unfold in the public eye? Did we equally need to know about the favourite breakfast food of our national leaders? Perhaps not. Did we want to, though? Oh yes. For better or for worse, we did find out.
Which then brings us to the concept of ethics. The WHO in 2000, the Indian Psychiatry Society in 2014, the Press Council of India in 2019 and the Centre for Mental Health, Law and Policy in 2020 have issued good practice guidelines in reporting, which includes ethical reporting of personal, potentially sensitive information. All organizations, from mental health, legal and ethical perspective, recommend against sensationalizing self-harm behaviour, substance use and suicide in news reporting.
None of this is novel or even surprising. These varied guidelines, however, are mere recommendations which Indian news reporting has appeared to have flouted with impunity in the past few months. This shedding of scruples is disappointing and one that may have far-reaching consequences over the years.
What is also concerning is that in sensationalizing individual events, we appear to have lost sight of the forest for the trees. There are large, vast and overwhelming elephants in the room that we need to address – the pandemic, our economy, unemployment, poverty, domestic strife, international relations, the refugee crisis, the looming consequences of poor mental health during the lockdown, domestic violence, substance use disorders, the re-emergence of infectious disorders such as polio and tuberculosis, questions of statehood, citizenship, and identity, including civil rights.
There is then, no shortage of material to address. In fact, the social behaviour around the recent death by suicide of a promising young actor serves as a poignant micro-environment within which all these social problems have played out at a personal level.
The personal then, it would seem, is always political.
Horace Greeley reportedly said, “Journalism will kill you, but it will keep you alive while you’re at it.” India has plunged to a disappointing 142 out of 180 countries surveyed in the 2020 World Press Freedom Index, under recent governance. It raises questions of how free we really are in our engagement with, production of and consumption of media. Perhaps the focus on personal politics helps us handle our anxiety about the information gap regarding public politics.
We are on the verge of observing International Day of Democracy on September 15, 2020. In times when we may be less free than ever before, scientific and factual reporting is the need of the hour, at a local and global level. The United Nations General Assembly, in 2007, had resolved to commemorate democracy on this day with the purpose of promoting and upholding the principles of democracy across the world.
They had invited all member states and organisations to commemorate the day in an appropriate manner that contributes to raising public awareness. May India do so in an appropriate and worthy manner.
May we further do so by walking away from our collective outrage at the virtue (or lack thereof) in a woman, in any woman.