The media has given saturated coverage to the Pulwama terrorist attack. This is not unnatural because it was the deadliest single action against the security forces in almost three decades of Pakistani sponsored terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir. That it was perpetrated by Jaish-e-Mohammed through a vehicle-borne suicide bomber who rammed the CRPF bus with hundreds of kilogrammes of explosives causing 42 deaths on the Jammu-Srinagar Highway also contributed to fixating attention.
The way the media is running the terrorist action once again raises the question of how such grievous actions should be covered. Are there golden rules that should ideally be observed while reporting such events and in commentaries, including talk shows? And are these being observed in the constant flow of “Breaking News” on TV and updates in newspapers and digital news websites?
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Seeking Justice, Not Revenge, Is Fine
Clearly the first principle that the media needs to observe is to refrain from giving out any slant which can disturb social harmony and peace in the country. That would play into Pakistan’s and its sponsored terrorist groups’ traditional desire. Nearly all the Pulwama coverage in national media has avoided this Pakistani trap.
The media has rightly discerned that the shadow of India-Pakistani developments should not be allowed to fall on any section of Indian society.
Another important aspect of media coverage relates to its impact on government policies and actions. This is a problematic area for the media both reflects popular sentiment as it contributes to its formation. No Indian government can be insensitive to the people’s feelings. It has to respond to them in real time trying to manage the needs of the moment with the cool and sober requirements of the long-term. It is here that the media’s role becomes crucial.
If the media gives full vent to popular anger and in intemperate language it raises the temperature of the people’s mood. This may foreclose some opportune options and precipitate moves earlier than a government may want to. In the wake of the Pulwama attack most channels, while allowing anger to be expressed, tried to counteract its excess through the cool observations of their anchors.
Some channels, however, were in the forefront of seeking quick action against Pakistan. Some even began hashtags calling for revenge. Many others sought justice. There is basic difference between justice and revenge.
A desire for justice, as expressed by the media, cannot be faulted.
Leave the Job of Explaining to the Experts
Following the CCS meeting of February 15 the government announce certain diplomatic steps against Pakistan. Its obvious object was to show that it had begun meaningful action against Pakistan. These steps included suspension of the Most Favoured Nation Status (MFN) and the decision to launch a diplomatic campaign to isolate Pakistan. Most media channels put out the story as the government would have liked them to — without closely analysing the real impact of these steps on Pakistan.
As a general rule channels get guests which have some expertise and add value to the debates. However, sometimes guests contribute to the decibel levels but hardly add any light. Perhaps they raise the TRPs.
Some channels allowed commentators to clarify that these steps indicated Indian anger at the terrorist attack but would not deter Pakistan from continuing to sponsor terrorism. The MFN withdrawal would not significantly harm Pakistan’s economy for that country does not depend on the Indian market.
The quest to diplomatically isolate Pakistan would also run into the crucial role the country is playing in influencing the Taliban for the US- Afghanistan talks. Some print media outlets explained these matters well but their example should have been followed by others as well.
Let ‘Human Interest’ Remain Humane
The human interest aspects of the terrorist attacks can hardly be avoided for they convey the travail and suffering of the families of the martyrs. Their appeals to the government that the sacrifice of their sons demand vengeance has a special poignancy. Most channels did not overplay these aspects. Measured coverage of grief should not be problem as long as it does not fan the jingoistic fires or cause further inconvenience to the mourning friends and family.
The nations emotions are raw but most sections of the media have acted responsibly. Some could have been more so and their language less strident.
(The writer is a former Secretary [West], Ministry of External Affairs. He can be reached at @VivekKatju. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)