Anti-CAA Protest: How Media's False Sense of Balance Helps Cops

‘Objectivity’ in journalism tends to shield perpetrators of state violence even if the journalist doesn’t intend to.

Updated21 Feb 2020, 12:34 PM IST
7 min read

After the protest turned violent, the police resorted to lathi-charge. Several were injured in the clashes.

The above paragraph is quintessential journalese, an essential part of countless reports written about sundry protests, like avial in a Malayalee meal.

It’s written without much thought, and the words, “like cavalry horses answering the bugle, group themselves into the familiar dreary pattern,” in George Orwell’s words.

However, the paragraph is not innocent. It is designed to shield the police from any responsibility for the violence. Let’s break it down:

After the protest turned violent

There is nothing inherent about a protest that ‘turns violent’. How does it happen then? Can it be said to turn violent if it is the police that is violent? No. The only implication here is that it was the protester that first took to violence. By default.

the police resorted to lathi-charge.

Resort verb, definition:

turn to and adopt (a course of action, especially an extreme or undesirable one) so as to resolve a difficult situation.

The police, again, by default, are assumed to have been forced to pick up their lathis after the protesters turned violent.

Several were injured in the clashes.

A clash implies two hostile parties. The use of this term is also designed to shield the police from accusations of assaulting unarmed civilians.

The journalist writing this, however, is oblivious to this bias. For the record, this article is not about the celebrity anchors on TV, injecting hate into the bodypolitic every night, and, presumably, sleeping well afterwards. A lot has been written about propaganda journalism of the likes of Republic TV, Times Now or Zee News but at this point it is a futile exercise, like showing the mirror to a vampire.

No, we are talking about actual journalists, overworked and underpaid, who believe they are doing their work fairly and objectively.

However, objectivity likes those in power.

How Objectivity Came to Be

Journalistic objectivity emerged in the late 19th century as a counterweight to partisanship or “yellow journalism”. The newspapers increasingly came under the sway of market forces and to survive they could not afford to alienate any sections of the public.

Yes, objectivity was the advertisers’ choice but it was also perceived as a necessity. And on paper, it was a good thing.

Wikipedia says journalistic objectivity may refer to fairness, disinterestedness, factuality, and nonpartisanship, but most often encompasses all of these qualities. Sociologist Michael Schudson suggests that "the belief in objectivity is a faith in 'facts,' a distrust in 'values,' and a commitment to their segregation".

The problem with objectivity is not that it exists, but that it only exists one way. It is a hammer facing down and demands far greater accountability from the powerless than it does from those up above. "The doctrine of objectivity is fraud," says rural journalist P Sainath – "It always ends up giving the last word to the rich and the powerful".

Lynchings, A Century Apart

In the late 19th century and the early 20th century, over 3,000 African Americans were lynched in the United States. Playing by objectivity’s rules, newspaper reports about these lynchings were “bloodless”.

The lynchings were orgies of violence, where the ‘black man’ – often described as “fiend”, “wretch”, or “desperado” in the reports – was tortured with hot irons, mutilated, and finally burned at the stake or left to hang in trees. At this point, the mob, often numbering in the thousands and having soaked in the screams of the dying man, rushed in to collect pieces of his body as “souvenirs”, which later found a lucrative secondary market.

However, objectivity demanded that both sides be presented, dispassionately. So, the newspapers gave equal prominence to the crimes the African Americans were accused of. Most of them were accused, often falsely, of raping white women. Mobs do not have a habit of waiting for evidence.

This “false balance”, American author David Mindich says, failed “to recognise the truth, that African-Americans were being terrorised across the nation”.

The parallels between US lynchings and India’s own 21st century version are hard to miss.

Paul Reed and Will Cato were chained to this pine stump and burned to death by a lynch mob after being convicted of murder in Statesboro, Georgia in 1904.
Paul Reed and Will Cato were chained to this pine stump and burned to death by a lynch mob after being convicted of murder in Statesboro, Georgia in 1904.
(Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)

While the first few victims of the epidemic, such as Muhammed Akhlaq in Dadri and Pehlu Khan in Alwar, were extensively covered and somewhat humanised, novelty soon wore off.

The reports have again become “bloodless” and the alleged crimes now have their place of pride. Sample these headlines:

‘Two Muslim men, suspected of cattle theft, lynched in Jharkhand’, ‘Mob in India kills three on suspicion of cattle theft’, ‘Cow vigilantes kill man in Tripura on suspicion of cattle theft’, and many more.

The crimes are mostly incidental to the lynchings. Akhlaq was accused of eating beef at his home. The meat made several unsuccessful trips to labs but was never named as beef. Pehlu Khan was transporting dairy cattle when he was stopped and killed in front of his sons.

The real crime is being a Muslim. The purpose of the lynchings, as the vigilantes freely admit in The Quint’s lynchistan documentary, is to “spread bigotry”.

As more and more cases trickle in, objective reporting fails to recognise the truth, that Muslims are being terrorised across the nation.

You Can’t Be Neutral in A Moving Train

So goes the title of the autobiography of ‘people’s journalist’ Howard Zinn. What he means to say is that the biases of our times are embedded in ourselves.

The ideologies of the ruling class and the “dominant concept of reality is diffused throughout the public as well as private dimensions of social life", said Italian Marxist thinker Antonio Gramsci. This is his concept of hegemony.

Much like Delhi’s smog, the ideas propping up the ruling class are everywhere and end up becoming, even if unwanted, a part of yourself.

How hegemony works is visible in the synonyms chosen by journalists for the humble verb “said”. A senior police officer informs, while an eyewitness on the ground claims. Authorities point out or reveal, while the human rights group alleges.

This, despite the police officer having more incentive to lie than the eyewitness and there being no objective reason why authorities’ version of events should be any more credible than those of the human rights groups.

After Delhi Police denied that they ever set foot inside Jamia’s library, CCTV clips that have emerged show that not only did they enter, they broke CCTV cameras, and assaulted stunned and unarmed students with lathis, causing one of them to lose an eye.

In Uttar Pradesh, where the chief minister of the state had exhorted for “revenge” against anti-CAA protesters, 15 of them ended up dead. Although the police has denied responsibility, they have been caught on camera firing at protesters, breaking CCTVs, and vandalising vehicles.

In Bijnor city, superintendent of police Sanjeev Tyagi admitted that they had shot 20-year-old Suleman on the chest in “self-defence”. He also told media that the protesters had firearms and many of his colleagues were injured.

“The crowd was firing indiscriminately,” he told The Caravan.

An audio has been leaked in which Tyagi can be purportedly heard asking colleagues to “break the bones” of protesters, adding that the order has come “straight from Chief Minister Adityanath’s office”.

When the case finally came to the local court, the judge observed that “according to the prosecution itself, no police official has received any bullet injury”.

“It has shown that police officials have received injuries due to stone-pelting. However, no evidence has been produced that proves that anyone received serious injuries,” Judge Pandey added.

The bottom line is authorities lie, all the time. And it is hardly a secret. A 2018 Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) study found that less than 25 percent of Indians trust the police highly. So it’s time to retire “informed”, “pointed out” and “revealed”, no matter how high-ranking the official, and just stick to “said”, or better yet, “claimed”.

No Objectivity in High Altitudes

Objectivity is harder to come by the more you go up the ladder of power. And when it comes to the perceived interests of the nation, which is more often than not a proxy for the interests of the government in power, it is almost non-existent.

Journalists working in the national security beat, then, can conjure up 300 dead bodies of terrorists after the Balakot air strikes using the magic words “sources said”. The bodies were later never found and the government itself has declined to put a number on the casualties. But the narrative of 300 bodies has stuck.

The “sources”, however, were studiously silent on the shooting down of an IAF chopper in Budgam, Jammu and Kashmir on 27 February 2019. The families of the six soldiers and a civilian who were tragically killed were left to grope in the dark for closure for three months until after the election results were announced.

The IAF finally confirmed that the chopper was brought down by a “friendly” missile.

How to Be Not So Objective

How to avoid these pitfalls? It is easier to lean on cliches and journalese even if the sentence so conceived is a deformed monstrosity. Only constant vigilance will help. “This invasion of one's mind by ready-made phrases,” Orwell writes, “can only be prevented if one is constantly on guard against them, and every such phrase anaesthetises a portion of one's brain.”

However, this is easier said than done in modern newsrooms, which have come to resemble Charlie Chaplin’s ‘Modern Times. They have become busy assembly lines, processing a copious number of articles, videos and podcasts and in perpetual terror of a three-letter acronymn – the ETA. (As in “What is your ETA (Estimated Time of Arrival)?” or “Why is it not published yet?”)

Time becomes the only currency because that’s how social media and search engines work. Do we have the patience to stop, think and reflect?

The lack of time and resources for a network of on-ground reporters lead to an over-reliance on press agencies. In India, this means the Press Trust of India (PTI) and its much more problematic cousin Asian News International (ANI).

For those who don't know, press agencies are subscription services that offer text and videos to media organisations of all hues, left, right and centre. A lot more content on your newsfeed than you realise come from these press agencies.

And they typically play it safe. In fact, the idea of objectivity was initially pushed by the news agency Associated Press, as they have to provide a single feed for conservative and liberal outlets.

It is not easy for a reporter, whether from a press agency or not, to identify the guilty party, especially in its immediate aftermath of an event. Even if one is sure of the facts, a defamation suit may not be far away.

Having said that, there is no excuse to writing "Jamia students were beaten up inside the library" instead of "Delhi Police beat up Jamia students inside the library". Passive voice cannot become the norm.

And finally, we can stop chasing the false god of objectivity and state the truth in its naked form, even if it sometimes makes us uncomfortable.

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Published: 20 Feb 2020, 07:48 AM IST
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