Journalism of outrage in Gorakhpur, minus empathy

BY ANUP KUMAR| IN Media Practice | 18/08/2017
The coverage of a tragedy produced by professional journalists affects how a community and a nation responds to the underlying causes,
says ANUP KUMAR

Should apportioning blame precede empathetic reporting of the tragedy?

 

About 70 children, many of them infants, died in the pediatric and neo-natal department of the Baba Raghav Das Medial College and Hospital in Gorakhpur from August 7 and 12. Many died gasping for air as the supply of oxygen ran out in the hospital.

This national tragedy should have highlighted the precarious condition of the  public health system in India, especially in the northern states but what we got was politics as usual.

Why was it that our first gut reaction to an ongoing tragedy of children dying from cerebral anoxia - while many parents were still struggling to keep their babies alive by pumping air into their lungs for hours using manual resuscitators - was to draw on our partisan instincts in attributing the blame to our preferred object of derision and scorn? How have we as a nation and people become so cynical and desensitized? 

The coverage in certain sections of the media should put Indian journalism to shame. Within hours the focus of the reporting moved away from the victims to recrimination and blame. As a society, we have come to revel in the immediacy of street retribution, and all governments, and especially the current one, have used it to distract attention away from systemic issues of inefficiency, corruption, and the absence of criminal liability.

"In the immediacy of a tragedy the media goes in full force, often to beat its competition at the ratings game, and then pulls back as fast as it went in"

 

The coverage of a tragedy produced by professional journalists affects how a community and a nation responds to the underlying causes, especially when so much unreliable information peddling goes on in the social media.

Today our experience of the world is highly mediated and the media’s para-social function is structurally suited, if used well, to pull a community, a nation, together in collective mourning and social production of empathetic understanding of the tragic circumstances and the loss.  Through empathetic journalism, we who are far removed from the site of the tragedy join others in experiencing the grief.

A cardinal principle of covering a human tragedy is that reporting, first and foremost, should be empathetic to the pain of the victims. A reporter’s first duty is to make the larger society experience this pain by transporting audiences to the  scene of the tragedy.

The preliminary reports suggest that the administration of the hospital was grossly negligent in maintaining an adequate supply of oxygen, which may even amount to criminal liability but should journalists in the immediacy of the crisis have focused on the likely negligence of the doctors or on the efforts to save the children and alleviate the grief of the victims?

Once the oxygen supply had dried up, as per some reports, the doctors, nurses, and staff were working hard to save as many children they could. Thinking that they would be doing anything different other than trying to save the children after the error was identified would be cynical.

In the immediate hours after a crisis breaks out our first concern should be to save more children from dying. But from the coverage in a section of the media it seemed that many of us were not so much interested in saving lives but in using the moment to double down on our partisan politics. For some in the media and politics, partisanship must continue, even in death, because there is nothing more evil than the political opponent.  

Pratap Bhanu Mehta articulated this in The Indian Express compellingly: “The children are fated to die because even in tragedy we will find an excuse to once again replay mock battles. In India, there is no space for mourning, only for recrimination. There is no space for truly valuing what was lost, even a moment of pause where we confront the gaping void these deaths leave behind. Instead, that void will be filled very quickly by the same politics of recrimination, divisiveness and distraction that produced this outcome in the first place.”

"While a tragedy is still fresh, reporters should avoid going to political sources other than those who have executive responsibility"

 

Practising the journalism of outrage at a dysfunctional and corrupt public health system that led to the deaths of the children was expected and very much warranted; but outrage is not same as partisan recrimination. The politicizing of a tragedy not only distracts from the pain of the victims and the community, it often lays the ground for derailing any future investigations and structural reforms as well.

Human tragedies have the potential to bring out the best and the worst in journalism. Unfortunately, in practice it has often highlighted the worst in the media: sensationalism, lack of empathy, market competitiveness, and partisan point scoring that are indexed to our preferred meta-narratives about the prevailing political climate. 

In the chaotic circumstances of a tragedy, facts are often contradictory. Journalists should avoid making a political point before all the facts are known and confirmed. Let your audiences know only facts that have been vetted using standard journalistic methods. In the age of social media journalists have a greater burden to check rumours and stop alternative facts from spreading.

While a tragedy is still fresh, reporters should avoid going to political sources other than those who have executive responsibility. Political sources will inevitably politicize a tragedy even before the tears have tried up. Instead, reporters must rely on officials and experts who can help understand the technical issues and lapses that may help the victims and the community deal with the tragedy.

Getting some answers as soon as possible is important for comforting and alleviating the pain to some degree.  The preliminary inquiry conducted by the district administration has shown that there were not only inefficiencies in the institutional functioning of the BRD hospital, but a corrupt nexus likely existed between the private supplier of oxygen and some of the doctors and staff.

The report has especially identified the principal and the head of anesthesia as being responsible for the drying up of the liquid oxygen supply in the hospital. 

Other inquiries conducted by a team of doctors have reported that the actual number of deaths from Japanese Encephalitis, between August 10 and 11 when the oxygen supply had dried up, was about five. Some children died of other chronic conditions, but the majority of the dead were newborns who were most in need of oxygen through the ventilation system in the natal units.

The BRD hospital has one of the worst infant mortality rates and for Uttar Pradesh the rate is 78 per 1000 births, which is even higher than neighbouring Bihar.

The public health system in India is in very bad shape, and this is not only because of lack of funding from the government. The bigger problems are the work culture in public hospitals, lack of training in best practices, and a corrupt nexus between the medical bureaucracy and medical suppliers.

The problem is that in the immediacy of a tragedy the media goes in full force, often to beat its competition at the ratings game, and then pulls back as fast as it went in. In Indian journalism, there isn’t too much emphasis on follow-up stories that maintain the pressure on  the government and administration to do the right thing.

The media quickly moves to the next breaking story when, in fact, if they wish to provide opportunities for recrimination and blame, it is precisely in well-researched follow-up stories that this aspect can be aired.  

One hopes we in the media will not forget the babies who were gasping for air in Gorakhpur and that news media organizations will put in the required resources to do follow-up stories on the BRD hospital in Gorakhpur and the public health system in the India.

The first step could be to assign more journalists to work on the traditional enterprise of reporting on public health.

 

Anup Kumar teaches in the School of Communication, Cleveland State University. 

 

 

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