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How far can journalists go?

  • Published at 11:26 am May 14th, 2013
How far can journalists go?

A photograph of a Bangladeshi TV journalist is now the talk of the town on Facebook. He works as a reporter with a local TV channel, and is seen with the boom (microphone) in hand, giving a PTC (piece to camera), inside a grave at Jurain graveyard. Perhaps, the report was also broadcast on the network he works for. A photographer took the picture from above, but the reporter, the TV journalists say, has claimed that his graveyard PTC didn’t go on air. However, damage was done. It has been published in a more widely accessed medium, much bigger than a TV channel – Facebook. The result is that both the network and reporter are being bashed on Facebook. Questions have been raised in social media on his performance as a journalist. And this is exactly the question that is stirring every newsman’s mind in town. What is the audience thinking about us? The report was about the burial of unidentified people who died in the Savar collapse. The question is: what drove the reporter to go down in a grave for a PTC? What sort of information he could have given to the audience by standing in a grave? This is, indeed, a question that needs to be answered.

Any news item usually is scrutinised by many; from reporter to on-air, several stages are at work to give it a photo finish. Material sent over by reporters isn't necessarily of on-air quality; we all know this. The people who were responsible to edit this item should have done their job. A reporter would naturally try almost anything to prove him/herself, his/her performance. But what makes it on to the network also depends on others. Didn’t it occur to anyone that the grave scene would not be acceptable to the audience? Or is it true, as they say, that the media is emphasising dramatisation rather than providing information? Are we right in thinking that dramatisation would take us a long way? In journalism, for television channels, radio stations, newspapers, online news portals and news agencies – almost everyone follows editorial guidelines. We often hear about editorial policy in Bangladesh, but there are hardly any examples of the existence of written editorial guidelines for journalists. This fact is often proven by our broadcasts, pictures and news items. We seem to be quite nonchalant in preparing editorial policies for ourselves.

The PTC inside a grave at Jurain graveyard is a case in point. The picture also shows that journalistic ethics were bypassed in this case. This could be prevented if there was a formal editorial policy. Then, the reporter would have clear guidelines with regard to what he could or could not do.

We all understand that what we did in Savar was disaster-time journalism. We have portrayed recue operations, we spoke to rescue workers, we spoke to the relatives of victims, we spoke to rescued persons, we’ve shown the bodies and we also spoke to the authorities. It’s not impossible for a journalist to become emotional during such a calamity. They had to judge the situation on the ground, perform live broadcasts, and send footage and constant reports. In some instances, they have shown amazing courage. At the end of the day, the performance of the nation's journalists has been commendable. The public wouldn’t get any information if the journalists were not there; the people wouldn’t know the extent of the tragedy; many aspects of the disaster would remain unknown.

However, the way we portrayed the bodies, sometimes mutilated, is something that we should think about. The Twin Tower collapse in New York in 2001 killed about 3000 people. But the media there hardly showed any bodies that were trapped under the rubble. It’s time to decide whether we should also follow the same policy during this kind of coverage. We also need to think about how disruptive we were during the rescue operations while running our own live coverage. We have shown how the crowd created problems in the rescue operation, but perhaps refrained from thinking about what type of problems we created. We entered through the tunnels created by the rescuers and disrupted operations as a result by taking up time and space. Well, it is about time we started thinking how "courageous" we should be while going through the tunnels. We brought tears to the eyes of the audience by finding Shaheena, we carried water for the trapped persons, and at the end of the day, we felt quite satisfied, thinking that we were able to contribute to the rescue operations. It’s true that there would be little accountability if the journalists weren’t there. But questions were raised as to how ethical it was for us to ask someone, who had just been rescued from the rubble, about his/her feelings. Yes, we do have a hunger for news, for new information. By putting questions to those rescued, we were also able to help rescuers. But shouldn’t we have let someone, who’s just returned from death, stabilise a little? At that moment, our only question for them should have been: “How are you? Are you all right?” Some aspects of our work during our Savar coverage have certainly come to the fore. How logical were the risks that we have taken, to what extent did we act as activists, how disruptive was our presence during the rescue operations, how much information could we give to the audience, how investigative could we have been and how decent humane were we in our coverage – all these questions have been raised among the audience. And this is the perfect time to find answers for all these questions.

Having said that, let’s again stress the need for an editorial guideline. The guideline needs to be in black and white. The better aspects of journalism would reach the people if we had an editorial policy.

Before Savar, we covered several such disasters: Tazreen, Spectrum, Phoenix. But we never cared to do follow-up stories of those incidents. Only when Rana Plaza happened, did we follow up with them. If we had an editorial policy and doing follow-up stories was made mandatory, then our jobs would have been easier. Then again, only having an editorial policy may not be enough; we also need to implement the policy.

At least, the incident where a reporter hopped in to a grave could have been avoided if we had an editorial policy. That’s for sure.

The author is executive editor of Natunbarta.com and can be reached at [email protected]  

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