The medium is the message
Lessons the Indian media can learn from the TV coverage of the Wisconsin gurudwara shooting
All acts of senseless violence are reprehensible, but there is something particularly disturbing about an attack that takes place at a place of worship and targets people at prayer. As the news broke late on Sunday night of a shooting at a gurudwara in Wisconsin, I watched the nightmare unfold live on American TV news channels and via Twitter updates by people who were on site.
What has stayed with me since then was the incredible bravery of the president of the gurudwara, Satwant Kaleka, who lost his life in a bid to tackle the gunman; the tragic death of the priest Prakash Singh, who had just moved his wife and son to America; the helpless grief of those who stood outside wondering what had become of their loved ones inside the building; the courage of the policeman who engaged the shooter in an encounter and killed him before he could do any further damage; and the astonishing news that the Sikhs gathered outside had offered food and water to the journalists reporting on the incident as part of their ‘langar sewa’.
But as I think back on the whole episode, I am also beginning to appreciate the restraint and tact of the media coverage of the incident. And try as I may, I can’t help but contrast it unfavourably with the way we in the India media cover such acts of terrorism.
In Wisconsin, there was never any danger of the terrorists getting any tactical advantage from watching the TV news. All the news channels abided by the diktat that they should not show any footage that gave away the position of the SWAT teams that were deploying to storm the temple. The cameras also obediently pulled away from aerial shots of the gurudwara once they were asked by the authorities to do so. And despite all these precautions, they still erred on the side of caution by putting out a delayed feed so that the terrorists didn’t have any real-time information of events unfolding outside.
Contrast this with the way in which the Indian news channels covered the events of 26/11 in Mumbai. There were a cluster of TV crews outside the Taj Mahal and Oberoi hotels giving minute-by-minute coverage of what the security agencies were planning so that the terrorists only had to turn on a television set to find out what they were up against. Some reporters even gave away the location of where some of the hostages were hiding, thus enabling the terrorists to hunt them down and kill them.
Live pictures of every development were beamed all across the world – including Pakistan, giving the terrorists’ handlers a front-row seat to the carnage. For instance, when the NSG commandoes rappelled down on Chabad House to rescue the hostages, their operation was show in real time by most TV channels (only a couple had the wisdom to put in a time lag) thus taking away the surprise element that is crucial to any such attack.
And then there was the insensitive, even callous treatment of relatives and friends who were waiting outside hoping for news of their loved ones. It can’t have been easy having microphones thrust into their faces and asked variations of that old chestnut, “And how are you feeling?” (“Aap ko kaisa lag raha hai.”). In Winsconsin, on the other hand, the loved ones of those inside the gurudwara were corralled away from the site at a safe distance, and the media questioning – when it happened – was both sensitive and sensible.
But the pictures that still haunt me from the TV coverage of 26/11 are the ones of the hostages finally emerging from the Oberoi hotel, having been rescued after a hellish night. The moment they came out, the TV cameras were on them, the microphones thrust into their catatonic faces. “Tell us what happened”, “How many people are dead inside?”, “Did you see the terrorists?”
Can you even imagine what that feels like? To spend the night wondering whether you are going to survive to see another day, to see your friends and family mowed down in front of you, to finally emerge from that nightmare – and then have to negotiate a bunch of loud, raucous reporters walking all over one another to ask you a bunch of asinine questions. That’s exactly what all those who had been rescued had to encounter the moment they walked free.
Contrast this with Wisconsin, where we didn’t even see a glimpse of the hostages. The authorities evacuated them once they had sanitised the gurudwara interiors, but safely out of sight of the cameras. Their traumatised faces were kept out of the press; their privacy was respected by the authorities who did not give out any names; and they did not have to run the gauntlet of a media grilling the moment they walked out.
Leave alone the hostages, we didn’t even see close-ups of dead bodies, or screen shots of injured people. And the hospitals refused to release the names of those who were being treated out of respect for their families. In India, the camera crews would have been right outside the emergency room, trying to get in as many gruesome shots as they could for the benefit of their viewers.
Yes, there is a lot that is wrong with America – its gun laws, for instance, which allow such lunatics access to serious weaponry. But there are some things that it does get right – and its media coverage of such terror attacks, for one, is worth emulating.