Media and Death: HOW TO REPORT ON A DEATH

Death is a tragic event. And the bereaved families deserve every bit of privacy. But does our media respect this? The case of Sunanda Pushkar, wife of Shashi Tharoor, is an unfortunate blot in the media history of India.
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The coverage of the events surrounding the sudden death of Sunanda Puskhar, wife of Indian minister Shashi Tharoor, has shown both the television and print media at their worst. I am not a journalist and I haven’t got any experience working in a news organisation, but still out of pure common sense, here are seven commandments that I feel should be followed while covering a tragedy:

1. Thou shall not invite friends to indulge in frivolous gossip or conjecture
Most channels chose to invite “friends” of Pushkar who had no qualms whatsoever in indulging in gossip and highly sensitive information which may turn out to be complete falsehoods. Even journalists who were in close contact with Pushkar (whom you would expect to be aware of the principles of covering a tragedy such as this) sang like canaries. This may be one of those rare situations that merit a pre-interview i.e. where clear boundaries are laid down on what will and will not be allowed considering the situation.
On Headlines Today, Editor-at-Large, Rahul Kanwal chose to interview journalist Vir Sanghvi who had no compunctions in disclosing personal details of his conversations and interactions with Pushkar.

On CNN IBN, journalist Nalini Singh did the same.

It wasn’t just CNN IBN’s guests who were at fault, the channel itself repeatedly play a clip of Puskhar’s call to the channel the previous day. And insinuated that she probably was “not fully in control of her emotions”, which was followed by Sagarika Ghose revealing her private conversations with Pushkar.

2. Thou shall not report any unconfirmed reports
This is fairly straightforward, if a piece of information has not been verified and validated, it would be wiser to not report them. This must be applied to any and every situation of ground reporting. As the news broke, some reporters on the ground indulged in their usual routine of unconfirmed reports.
Articles such as these ones casually carried the word “poisoned” in its headline, which would suggest pre-meditated murder. The autopsy report stated that Pushkar died of an overdose of drugs. Those drugs were the poison. Only when you read the entire article is it clear that the police are still investigating whether the death was a suicide or homicide.
3. Thou shall not photograph the bereaved in moments of grief
A truly horrifying sight was to see photo journalists hoist their cameras with flashlights at the ambulance in which Tharoor and his step son sat with the Pushkar’s body. The term ambulance chaser was restricted for greedy lawyers, but these photo journalists stooped even lower. Unless the bereaved elect to speak to the media, it is highly unfitting to attempt to violate their privacy in a situation such as this.
Tharoor
4. Thou shall not boast about being the first to report
It is one thing to brag about being the first to interview a cricket team captain after a World Cup victory, but to boast about being the first to report on someone’s death is utterly callous. On the evening that Pushkar’s body was discovered at Leela, various news channels kept claiming that they were “the first to report” on it and that they had “exclusive” footage. The line of propriety seemed to have been forgotten or totally ignored.

5. Thou shall not play background music or use graphics while covering such news
Playing background music seems to have become common practice in TV news. The various maudlin tunes and songs which were being played while the visuals were being aired was as close to reprehensible as possible. Equally deplorable is to do a pictorial representation of the series of events leading to this kind of a death – replete with graphics and actors pretending to be the individuals involved.
Here’s what Headlines Today chose to do:
HLT

News 24 chose to include graphics and background music with a misleading headline and an unnecessarily theatric reporter declaring that Pushkar was poisoned.

Times Now seemed to choose the strangest music to accompany their report.

6. Thou shall look for examples of good coverage
This is one of those occasions in which we would have done well to take a cue from the West in how to cover this incident. The coverage in the mainstream media of the death of Princess Diana or even of 9/11 was detailed but was always sensitive and never exploitative. It’s probably time for the Indian news media to start developing media guidelines on reporting on suicide and death.
http://www.who.int/mental_health/prevention/suicide/resource_media.pdf
http://www.samaritans.org/media-centre/media-guidelines-reporting-suicide/advice-journalists-suicide-reporting-dos-and-donts
http://reportingonsuicide.org/Recommendations2012.pdf
http://www.journalism.co.uk/skills/how-to-report-on-death-and-suicide-responsibly-as-a-journalist/s7/a547931/
http://www.journalismethics.info/ethics_in_news/suicide.html

7. Thou shall treat the tragedy as if it was thy own
All the above commandments can very easily be adhered to, if the reporting party on the ground and the person in the TV studio try to put themselves in the position of the bereaved. How would they feel if the camera was shoved into their faces? How would they feel if gossip and rumours are spread and publicised on national TV when someone they know dies in similar circumstances? How would they feel if background music is played as their life story unfolds?

This in no way means that we should just unfairly glorify the departed. It is essential that a fair picture of the person be painted which includes both the positives and negatives, but it may make sense to hold back for a while before doing that, till we have all facts in place.

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