Thursday, September 11, 2008

Should the media be held guilty of abetting suicide?

While scientists readied themselves to fire up a never-before experiment to understand the origin of the universe, news channels in India (and presumably elsewhere too) hit a never-before low as they went on an overdrive "reporting" that the end of the world was near. Consequence: a 16-year-old girl near Bhopal killed herself anticipating doomsday.

Biharilal, the girl's father, insisted that Chayya (from Asharita near Indore) had consumed sulphos, an insecticide, after spending hours watching TV programmes on the proton-collision experiment. She was terrfied of reports that the experiment was set to cause mahapralay. The girl had persistently asked him if the end of the world was indeed imminent because of the experiment at CERN on the border of France and Switzerland. His dismissal was not comforting enough. This apocalyptic fear was first expressed by sceptics who predicted that the experiment would create an artificial "black hole" that would suck in the earth.

For whatever it's worth, the Information and Broadcasting Ministry has served notices to Aaj Tak and India TV for their reporting on the CERN experiment.

Chayya's death obviously reasserts the immense power channels and newspapers today command. However, more importantly it also poses several questions about how that power needs to be used. The channels, where it is always a struggle to find content and sustain oneself 24/7, gleefully jumped at the first thought of reporting on mahapralay. It was easy fodder for starved, lazy, unimaginative and irresponsible journalists.

Did the channels deliberately play up the fear of doomsday to grab a larger audience? A fear, which, at best, was a freak possiblity. And even if it deserved being talked about, did the channels bother to show scientists who were rebutting that lunatic claim? My fear is no. It's not just television channels. Even papers and websites played up the doomsday element with relish. Sample, for instance, this from Rediff: A Wednesday. Will the world survive it?

Thye girl's death must not go in vain. It has to lead us to establish a functional and effective media regulatory body. If journalists smart at the thought of being controlled by the government, they must offer an alternative that checks the plummeting standards of journalism in India; Arushi and the CERN incident being just two shining and recent examples.


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