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What is Wrong with Media Coverage of the Sheena Murder Case?
September 06, 2015

Excerpts from Amulya Gopalakrishnan's critique in the Times of India of 1 Sept, Op-ed page.

How does media advance public accountability in a criminal case? By reporting the investigation and providing perspective, and exposing any flaws in the conduct of police and courts. Not by inviting random people and allowing every conjecture in their lizard brains to be aired, and prejudicing perceptions of the case even before the chargesheet has been filed.

As far as TV channels and the digital media and many newspapers are concerned, there seems to be no obligation to respect Indrani’s privacy. Being declared a suspect is enough, the media now has licence to pry. There have been interviews with former schoolmates, colleagues, friends and acquaintances. Intimate details of her life have been flung about. Her family tree and business dealings have been leading news items, with no attempt made to establish relevance.
What about the presumption that she is innocent until proven guilty? Is it the media’s job to feed on leaks and funnel sympathies one way or the other, or to leave evidence-gathering and motive – establishing to the investigators and leave room for a fair trial?
The logic of TV, though, means that it would be near-impossible to maintain distance and decorum in the Indrani case. The material is simply too promising to be passed up. When the media is sustained by ratings, news naturally blurs into entertainment and public interest comes to mean what the public is interested in.
Around the world, media trials feature a few recurring tropes – the ‘sinful rich’, the ‘abuse of trust or power’, the ‘evil stranger’. Extra-legal facts are routinely highlighted. By that logic, this case is brimming with exploitable angles.
What draws TV and public attention to a particular crime? The algorithm usually involves the social prominence of accused or victim, the exceptional or grisly nature of the crime, and the emotional resonance of the story. TV doesn’t cover mundane crime or care about conditions that foster crime. Crime is presented as individualised pathology, propelled by things like madness or ambition. Agents of law and order are usually celebrated. And perspective is sacrificed for sensation.

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Somehow, social mobility is suspect in India; it is assumed that anyone who rises rapidly must have made some pact with the devil, and when it’s a woman, the titillating possibilities are endless. This paper ran an article called ‘Shock and horror among Assamese women’ – where random people decried her for not submitting herself to family alone, calling her actions monstrous, hurling metaphorical rocks.

Click here to read the full article

Even editors cannot refrain from being salacious. Here is an exchange between Rahul Kanwal and Vir Sangvi on India Today TV

(Amulya's photo credit: Indian Express)

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