Unknown to the intrepid reporter, the grieving woman and her angry relative, I too was recording the sound byte of the wailing on my mobile phone. My commissioning editor in Delhi had kept reminding me about that elusive wailing audio with which she wanted to start the radio package even before I had reached Ground Zero.
“30 seconds of misery”
“Kya kar rahen hai aap log? Mazaak banake rakha hai aap logon ne!” The young man in his 20s was screaming at the top of his voice at another young man, nearly his age, who was intently shooting his wailing female relative. After frantically searching for his missing son, the woman in her early 40s had just got the news of the death of the one person who meant everything to her and was sobbing uncontrollably, unmindful of the rolling camera. And the young man with a small video camera - perhaps a reporter with a local channel – clearly did not to miss out on this heaven-sent opportunity to get the kind of visual that television channels die for. He had perched himself barely two feet way from the wailing woman with his camera pointed bang on her face to get the possible view.
Unknown to the intrepid reporter, the grieving woman and her angry relative, I too was recording the sound byte of the wailing on my mobile phone. My commissioning editor in Delhi had kept reminding me about that elusive wailing audio with which she wanted to start the radio package even before I had reached Ground Zero. She didn’t stop even after I had given her all else that she had asked for – in fact much more than that. But the problem was I had reached the mishap site at least a day late because the worst train tragedy of the century happened when I was on my back home from Bali after a family vacation. By which time, the wailing and sobbing that had rent the Balasore air in the immediate aftermath of the mishap had largely ebbed and it was hard to get a sound clip of wailing. When I tried explaining this to my editor in Delhi, she said; “In that case, can you get an audio of some of your journalist friends who must have recorded it in the aftermath of the accident?” She is such a sweet lady, I didn’t have the heart to say ‘No’.
I was about to call the one person I have always depended on such occasions (who, by the way, works for the same organization I am writing this column for) when a fellow journalist, who knew what I was looking for, came rushing to break the news that a woman was wailing barely 50 meters away from where I was standing. I went rushing to the spot with him. But having been in the profession long enough to know where to draw the line between the demands of the profession and the commitment to ethics – and needless to say respect for people’s privacy – I was not too eager like the young reporter and maintained a discreet distance while recording the wailing audio. As the grieving woman’s relative started shouting, the local reporter fled the place, camera and all. I withdrew from the scene too, discreetly again. By then, I had got what I had been looking for since landing in Balasore the previous nights: 30 seconds of human misery! [When I listened to the clip after coming back to the hotel room, I was horrified to find that I had unwittingly recorded the young man blurting out the words with which this piece starts!]
The young man was not shouting at me. In all probability, he didn’t even know that I was recording since I was not holding a camera vulgarly pointed at his sobbing female relative. But each word he said was piercing through my ears as I was retreating from the place. I felt it was directed at me. And, through me, at my entire media fraternity.
What the young man said was spot on. We, the media, have indeed turned tragedy into a farce. We fight among ourselves to get the best – and the closest – possible view of the unfolding tragedy. We thrust booms into people’s faces grieving the death of their loved ones and ask ridiculous questions like; “How do you feel after losing your son?” Harried ground reporters keep repeating inanities like “As you can see, people are crying over their dear ones. I will ask my cameraperson to pan to the scene.” In short, we have lost all respect for the sensibilities and sensitivities of human beings and have become rogues reveling in people’s miseries.
This dilemma – between being true to the profession and the respect for the sensitivities of people – has persisted right through my journalistic career spanning over three and a half decades. The demands of modern journalism require you to acquire immunity against such pangs of conscience. And most people do acquire the immunity over a period of time. But I, for one, have never quite been able to shake off the basic respect for people’s privacy even after all these years in the profession. [Part of the reason I have never really been a good reporter!]
Things were, of course, much better in the pre-television days. You didn’t have to get as close to the scene as could. You did not need to encroach into people’s private spaces. You didn’t have to thrust mikes into the distorted faces of distraught people to ask stupid questions. But now, the visual is the king; the closer, the gorier, the merrier. After all, what is television – and now the social media – without heart wrenching visuals of wailing men and women grieving over the death of someone close after a tragedy? There is simply no getting away from the fact that such visuals – and sound bytes, for that matter – sustain the electronic media. But it is equally important to draw a line at some point and earmark some ‘no go’ areas. In its quest to bring the best possible view for the voyeuristic viewer, however, television has obliterated the line altogether!
I am happy I got my 30 seconds of misery. My editor in Delhi is happy she didn’t have to change her plans on how to go about the story. Even the eager young reporter, despite the scolding he got, was perhaps happy he got his ‘exclusive’. But the words of the other young man would continue to haunt me for the rest of my life.
(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are the author’s own and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or views. OTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.)