Media as Conscience-keeper?

BY haritsa| IN Media Practice | 01/05/2004
The newspaper report cleverly combines the sources and techniques of journalism and fictional narration to ‘establish’ and pronounce judgment on ‘what really happened’.
 

Shashikala S. and  Nikhila Haritsa

 

We wish to initiate discussion among the readers of The Hoot on the role of media in shaping civil society - the values, norms and mores that define ‘civility’ in social interaction.  This is important as increasingly individuals and institutions are being subject to ‘trial by media’. From public life to private life the media has arrogated to itself the power to pronounce judgments and hand out values for society and polity - aggressively and self-righteously constituting itself as social watchdog by ‘exposing’ the ‘corrupt’, the ‘criminal’, the ‘scamster’ and so on.  While political institutions, educational and other social institutions have come under intense media scrutiny in recent times, media as an institution shaping society has been largely unexamined, though vague and sometimes hysterical pronouncements against media ‘corrupting’ society are heard.  In this article, we will take a particular instance of a Kannada weekly paper’s report implicating a University lecturer in a girl student’s suicide as our case for analyzing the wider ramifications of media acting as self-appointed social conscience-keeper.

In March this year, a Kannada weekly paper Hi Bangalore, printed out of Bangalore with a circulation throughout Karnataka, published a report titled "Hampi Vishwavidyalayadallondu Saavu: Bahuvallabha Tharakeshwar mattu nENige Bidda Indramani" [Death in Hampi University: Master-of-many-(women) Tharakeshwar and Victim-of-Hanging Indramani] in its March 19, 2004 issue.  It rhetorically asked in its cover page headline:  "A girl’s suicide in Hampi University: How many lovers does the killer-teacher have?"   

The purported aim of the report is to highlight to the public that the morals in our educational institutions is declining as University professors today are "feeding on the bodies of girl students in an unhampered manner".  While this overgeneralization and exaggeration is itself problematic, the question is on what basis has the report reached such a conclusion even in the context of the particular incident it is reporting on?  If there has been a suicide and police investigation has followed, one would expect that the report is based on the police investigative report.  But the Hi Bangalore report makes absolutely no reference to it.  If we assume that no police investigation followed the suicide or that the report was not available, then what are the other likely sources of the newspaper report?  It would be the students of the University, the faculty members, administrative staff or someone in the know of the University happenings, because the report goes on extensively about the nitty-gritty of everyday interaction between teachers and students of the University. Yet, no source is quoted or revealed throughout the report. 

Then how is the report made plausible to the readers?  The report constructs a narrative that is a combination of facts and conjectures, associations and invocation of stereotypes.  For instance, it is an easily established fact that a girl student of a University committed suicide.  But it is pure conjecture that her suicide was the result of her disappointment in love, as no evidence is cited.  As substitute for evidence, the narrative only further associates facts and combines them with conjecture.  According to the report, the girl student’s marks and her participation in cultural activities establish that she was a serious, sincere and vivacious student.  It makes an association of this fact with another one that can be easily established: the male teacher was unmarried.  This association is strengthened by the conjecture that the girl student drew the attention of her male teacher and ‘became close’ to him.  At this point, the report invokes the stereotype of the ‘philandering male’ and ‘jealous female’ to show the readers what ‘actually happened’ leading to her death.  It says that the girl had displaced other girls and drawn her male teacher’s attention away from those girls who where earlier ‘close’ to him; but soon, she was herself displaced by yet another girl student, and unable to get over her disappointment she went to the house of her friend, who was also one of her many rivals in this love game and committed suicide.  The report strengthens this narrative of love and rivalry through allegations and insinuations - the male teacher’s house was a den of vice, the girl students spent nights there, they teased each other about their affairs with teachers and so on.  So ‘universally known’ are these proclivities made out to be, that they don’t even have to be proven or established.  So we see here how a newspaper report cleverly combines the sources and techniques of journalism and fictional narration to ‘establish’ and pronounce judgment on ‘what really happened’. 

As if to rub in its ‘authenticity’, the report is accompanied by the photograph of not only the dead girl, but also of her ‘rivals’ - other girl students, while Press Council of India norms clearly state that in matters of chastity and personal character of women, their names, photographs and other markers of identity should not be revealed.  The report brands the male teacher as ‘killer’ even while Press Council norms call for caution and restraint on the part of journalists in branding people ‘killers’ or cheats’.  As if to justify its public-spiritedness, Hi Bangalore followed up the publication of this report with two letters to the editor condemning the teacher and goings-on in the University.  How is it that no letters protesting against the defamation to the students or the lecturer were published?  Were none written or did they remain unpublished, so that the ‘truth’ of its report and its credibility as watchdog of public morality would remain unharmed?  Can we trust a medium that so wantonly and blatantly violates its limits?   

While it is not difficult to dismiss this report or the tabloid as "yellow journalism", it is important to see what the paper stands to gain by publishing such a report.  Hi Bangalore is a tabloid whose aim is to titillate and cater to prurient tastes, but under the self-righteous garb of ‘public good’.  A paper like Hi Bangalore can build its private commercial empire by discrediting public institutions and their personnel.  It can set itself up as a moral alternative to other institutions, without having to examine its own ethicality or be accountable.  By its sheer reach and power, it can hand out values and norms that serve private and partisan interests, as if they serve universal interest.  Since the journalistic medium demands abstraction and simplification (because of limited space, target readership, etc.) and competition is intense, it has to survive on adhocism.  But it masks its adhocism by dabbling in the relatively enduring terrain of social values, thus giving itself an edifying role.  

For an institution that has made accountability in public life a moral-political issue, it is high time media cleans up its own stables. 

 

 Nikhila Haritsa                             Shashikala S.   
 Lecturer in English                       Lecturer in English
 Pondicherry University                 Mount Carmel College
nikhila_h@vsnl.net                        Bangalore.
                                                 shashik25@yahoo.com

 

 

 

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