As two states of a democratic nation came to a standstill with the Ram Rahim Singh verdict, here’s a look at the role various media play in disseminating information and what the masses consume.
Media - the one word that polarises many. Be it the coverage, the journalists, social media influencers, debates, or the opinion pieces - everything is under the public scanner, and why not! However, there are way too many aspects to that one five-letter word. It is not just the single-dimensional news-giving source that provides information and influences masses.
From the daily dose of weather updates, stock market fluctuations and train schedule changes, to the large-scale incidents of violence, riots, protests and terrorist activities, we are bombarded with information from a thousand different sources - each giving his/her own view on the subject.
Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, whose conviction in a rape case last week caused much ruckus up north, and shook the administration, calls himself a ‘philanthropist, social worker, saint’ among a hundred other things in his bio on Twitter. He has a dedicated website, a verified Twitter account, and a Facebook page.
A number of his followers after the verdict put up messages on social media about how ‘truth will triumph’ and how the godman will emerge victorious while some others have smashed him and the state machinery for letting the baba flourish.
What then is the ‘common man’ supposed to consume?
The social media game
“Social media is now a tool to influence popular perception. With there being no filters between the opposing sides, it is a full-on pitched battle. In this battle all is fair game to make the other side look terrible,” says Harini Calamur, a senior media professional, who has extensively worked in online media.
She, however, has a slightly optimistic view on the role of social media in the Ram Rahim episode. Social media was rather muted, as compared to otherwise, she says, blaming it on low social media base in Panchkula. “Those from Panchkula who were on social media, and Haryana, were offering help to those stranded when violence broke out after the verdict was announced. There were fairly authentic reports, for people from the ground,” she says.
In this situation, when even the international media has picked up the issue and the following chaos, our own media has been in the centre of action.
The media has covered Ram Rahim, over the years, for his ‘social work’ activities and during the release of his movies.
The news media, mostly the television medium, has often been at the receiving end when it comes to covering critical situations like riots and issues of national security. While the media professionals laud themselves for being in challenging situations and giving ‘live’ news to the public, their work is also looked at as a hindrance by the security agencies on a number of occasions.
“I think the media must be careful when it comes to reporting on sensitive issues like a communal riot or a terror attack,” says Tathagata Bhattacharya, Editor (Digital), National Herald. He, however, adds that this case of conviction of Gurmeet Ram Rahim did not fall into these categories.
“It was an administrative lapse that led to the violence. If media did not report on those, today the country would not know how the Haryana government messed up. How were lakhs of people allowed to congregate over a number of days? I think the media has done its job and that’s why the Haryana government has got egg on its face,” he believes.
Shaili Chopra, TV journalist, agrees. Chopra, who has reported live from the Taj Hotel in Mumbai, during the 2008 terrorist attack, says that it’s the sensitive situations where reporters should be. “It is the core job of journalists to report from where there are clashes or violence.”
A number of photojournalists have, in the past and in the current Ram Rahim situation, been injured in the process of capturing the moment. “There is no such concept of safety of reporters,” says Chopra, adding that every situation demands a certain kind of reporting. When we speak of the line that journalists shouldn’t cross, Chopra says that the line keeps changing depending on the situation.
“A journalist’s biggest ally is his/her common sense. One needs to know where to push the boundaries. Also, if the line is open to cross, why not?” she asks, citing the example of armed forces, where you are given clear instructions of ‘trespassers will be prosecuted’. “We are citizens of India first, so we must abide by these. You can’t cross this line,” she insists.
When reporting in a critical situation of violence or national security, the one question that journalists must ask themselves in this age of ‘breaking news’ is whether their reporting, is going to help the situation or worsen it, she concludes.