Breaking News: We killed him first

BY T S Sudhir| IN Media Practice | 12/09/2011
The competition among news channels to declare the son of cricketer Azharuddin dead after an accident highlighted the depths to which `breaking news' journalism has sunk.
T S SUDHIR says he blames the editors for pushing the reporters and cameramen to beat the rest on emerging events
Every second was precious. Doctors at Hyderabad's Apollo Hospital were fighting against time to save 19-year-old Ayazuddin, son of former Indian cricket captain, Mohammed Azharuddin. Outside, an aggressive, no-holds-barred competitive media seemed to be competing to declare young Ayaz `No More'.
Around 9:35 am on Sunday, Ayaz, and his 16-year-old cousin Ajmal, were wheeled into Apollo Hospital in a state of cardiac arrest, with no detectable BP or pulse. Both were very critical having suffered grievous injuries in a road accident on Hyderabad's Outer Ring Road. The doctors could not revive Ajmal. Ayaz responded to initial resuscitation measures and was taken for emergency surgery to stop the bleeding in his chest.
But outside, in the chaotic world of `breaking news', around 10:30, the vernacular media, quoting hospital sources, declared Ayaz `dead'. The herd mentality of the media ensured that the lead taken by this leading channel was blindly followed. Some Hindi channels followed suit. Fortunately, the English channels were more discreet, choosing to go by doctors who insisted they had not given up hope.
On twitter it was worse. After all, it requires just a click of a button on `retweet' for 140 characters to go viral. One wannabe actress, who is particularly active on the social networking platform, was berating fellow twitteratti for not being up to speed on news. She was dismissive of people who continued to say Ayaz was injured and kept spamming the timeline, declaring his `death'. Why, because TV channels had said so.
 I received an SMS forwarded by a friend, which said: ``Very strange that Azharuddin's son dies and no news channel or website reports it. Tony Greig broke the news while commentating on the SL-Australia game this morning.'' How on earth would Tony know? I would think that's more strange.
Some newspaper websites also ended up reporting it wrongly but at least one of them, a venerable multi-edition newspaper, had the decency to apologize on twitter.
I hold the newsrooms and editors responsible for this melee. The pressurized reporter on the spot is condemned because another channel flashes that xyz is dead, 5 seconds before you. The cameraperson and the live broadcast van engineer is abused because another channel has managed to get shots of the body 5 seconds before you. Perhaps that's the reason why crime reporters in Hyderabad have formed an informal group and decided that none of them will file an exclusive and whatever information anyone gets, will be shared with other reporters, before putting it on air. Good way to fight 24x7 stress.
TV news organizations forget that life on the telly is not necessarily a race and no viewer really is sitting with a timer to see who breasted the breaking news ticker. What he or she wants is reliable information and news treated with the sensitivity and importance it deserves.
I couldn't help sharing my anguish with Professor of Journalism K Nageshwar who said that print, television and web feeding on each other's incompetence is delivering a deadly cocktail. He pointed out that he has seen for himself ethics thrown to the winds during elections.
 ``If a channel is showing one party leading in 5 seats and another in 2, another channel will automatically increase it to 7 and 3, just to give the feeling to the viewer that it is more updated,'' he says. ``Similarly, phone-ins are done by reporters who pretend to be reporting from Delhi, while sitting in the same room, looking at national channels.''
As I write, Ayaz is on ventilator and his BP is being supported with high dose medication. It won't be easy for his family and friends and particularly traumatic for Azhar and Naureen, Ayaz's mother. The least the media could do is to take two steps back and allow some breathing space for the family. These are not moments to gather sound bites.
 (The author is the Editor of `The South Reports’ website)
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