Minority report | Print version


Minority report | Print version

Throughout last weekend, comments floated freely on various media about the death of Sunanda Pushkar, wife of minister of state for human resource development Shashi Tharoor.

News of the death of Pushkar, who was found dead in a Delhi hotel room on the night of 17 January, figured also in social gatherings and certainly in personal exchanges among people who had anything to do with Delhi’s social circuit.

At a wedding reception I attended on 19 January, a group of women laughed over Sunanda jokes. Judgmental as it sounds, it was disillusioning to hear a person no longer alive to present her point of view being spoken of so disrespectfully. We could blame the late Pushkar’s willing confessions to the media or on twitter about her marital discord but the question whether the media must report and re-tweet everything remains to be addressed.

A lot of unsavoury material apparently emerges on twitter every second, but do publications have a twitter editor? A responsible gatekeeper who doesn’t just edit what his own publication tweets but filters what the newspaper must carry back from twitter?

More importantly, must publications accept all kinds of interviews offered about people’s personal lives—however popular they are—and run them in print?

In the two days before Pushkar passed away, some stories about her on the front pages of newspapers were damaging to say the least. Tharoor caught between blonde and ISI agent in The Times of India was one such headline. Tez Tarar, sexy Sunanda in cross border catfight in Mumbai Mirror was another. (Tez is Hindi for sharp). Even The Indian Express’s front page-story, headlined Accusing Tharoor of affair, Sunanda says she will seek divorce, hardly seemed like priority news for a paper known for its non-sensationalist editorial stance.

While The Times of India story factually narrated Pushkar’s desperate calls to the media followed by her retracting her statements and asking that they not be reported, the packaging of some of these stories made many wonder if that was indeed the only way to present them. NDTV anchor Barkha Dutt, while discussing the Pushkar death on prime time television, quoted Shekhar Gupta, the editor-in-chief of The Indian Express, as having mentioned to her that his paper had recorded the Pushkar interview. Clearly, no room had been left for any counter-claims of misquoting or defamation charges by anyone. While Dutt said that NDTV had not sought a Pushkar interview despite the latter reaching out for one, yet on a majority of TV channels, every other news anchor seemed to have on his or her phone or twitter handle, messages from Pushkar which they openly read out to viewers. Rahul Kanwal of Headlines Today read them out one by one, raising questions on brevity and discretion.

Eventually, print, TV and digital media sounded the same. Let’s say that TV and digital media have a different set of pressures, but what about newspapers?

Some years ago, when digital media was growing up to become the monster it is now, among the most inspiring comments editors shared in newsrooms was how depth, discretion and nuance that is possible in print were the only way to sustain newspapers alongside digital and television media.

But the way it has panned out, we are all jostling for people’s attention. So if newspapers did indeed exercise caution in getting the facts right, what about editorial judgment in placing an article on Sunanda Pushkar’s tweets on the front page?

As more and more pieces everywhere trended (how shallow is that word) on Pushkar’s death and marital relationship, they shrank the quality of writing and manner of comment used on digital, print and TV media into one unfortunate blur.

If news channels zoomed in to the crematorium where Pushkar’s last rites were carried out; newspapers ran a similar image on front pages—how journalistically essential is that part of reportage?

Worse: all in-depth reports in papers offered the same spectrum—Pushkar’s evolution from a plain Jane to a charming society lady, quotes from her many shocked friends and, most importantly, a long column with her tweets—in this case, media’s biggest source of proving a point.

As I write this, the story retains its front page positioning but the tabloidish sting (thankfully) seems to have been dropped.

This shocking news peg, which offers strong personal and social lessons for those who are really interested, hasn’t been used to invite incisive pieces on the challenges modern marriages face or whether India is really becoming a Prozac nation, as scattered reports on a variety of issues have begun to suggest.

We are still waiting for a well-argued piece by a senior journalist who understands digital media on why personal tweets need an editorial filter before seeping into print publications.

Should we then brace for a new, new print journalist? Who writes quickly and candidly, has a rapid familiarity with catchphrases that could double up as popular search words on Google to attract traffic. Who doesn’t know the difference between opinion and reportage, front page or inside news?