Insensitive Scoops And Devastated Families

IN Media Practice | 31/08/2002
Insensitive Scoops And Devastated Families

Insensitive Scoops And Devastated Families

 

By Sevanti Ninan

 

A newspaper scoop on the unsolved case of a dead journalist raises serious questions about harming the reputations of those who have survived her, particularly her child.

 

The more one scrutinizes crime reporting, the more evident it becomes that some guidelines are needed on the way crime, and the lives of the victims and the accused is covered. Does the reputation of a dead person need no protection at all? Is a police official’s statement, even a speculative one enough basis for allegations to be freely made? And if not, is not such reporting libelous?

 

A new book is just out in the market, titled "Branded." Its sub title is Police, Press and People. It is the labour of love of a woman who seven years ago suffered on account of callous coverage of her son’s death. As she writes in her dedication, her son died two deaths—one physical, and the other the loss of his name. The book covers crimes such as murder, rape, and suicide that are given wider coverage by the media and more prone to sensationalism. It looks at crime reporting, the rights issue, and the mindset and bias of both press and police. The issues this book raises are important, because between the police who investigate and the reporters who cover crimes, a lot of unintended damage is done in the first few days of reporting, or even later.

 

You can end up libeling the dead. And insensitive reporting can be enormously damaging to the family of the victim. Take the Hindustan Times scoop on July 29 in the case of Shivani Bhatnagar, the Indian Express reporter who was murdered two and a half years ago. For all these days the case has remained unsolved, but now we are told the police have finally been able to crack the mystery. The paper therefore ran a banner headline atop page one on a Sunday---"Shivani case cracked, arrests soon". That is enormously high visibility for the story, the reporter’s byline and unfortunately for the victim of the story. For it had a unintended victim, as I will explain shortly.

 

The reporter says the murder was ordered by a senior government officer with whom she developed a close relationship. It goes on to allege that she was killed because she was pregnant and had been putting pressure on the official to marry her saying the child was his. "According to sources" when she continued to put pressure on him to divorce his wife and marry her, he became desperate and ordered the murder.

 

The story does not mention that Shivani Bhatnagar was married, which she was. Nobody can know for sure (other than Shivani and her husband) whose child the baby was. But the paternity of the child has now been questioned in the most public way possible. The child survived his mother’s murder, but heedless reporting puts him in danger of being stigmatized though nobody knows for sure whose child it is. Did the child have to be dragged into the story? A story on a case where charges have not been framed, the matter has not reached the courts, and nothing about the paternity or anything else has been proven. You need DNA tests to establish such links, can a report make the connections so airily on the basis of a briefing by sources? And why was the police official doing a briefing that would provide a scoop that would cause distress to the family of the dead, without any findings being officially declared?.

 

Three days after this report the Indian Express reported that the officer working on the case had been transferred. And the Delhi Police Commissioner was quoted as saying that the case had not been cracked, despite impressions being created to the contrary.

 

The irony is that the reporter whose story this is (the story carries a slug in bold type saying HT Exclusive) also writes in the collection of articles in "Branded." She writes on sources on information, and ends with the following para, "In fact to guard against ‘plants’ is perhaps the

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