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Are Indian Journalists Ever Taught How To Report Sensitively On Death?

The media coverage of actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s death has been rightly criticised, but there’s a much larger problem here.
Media seen as an ambulance carrying the body of actor Sushant Singh Rajput is leaves his residence in Mumbai on June 14, 2020.
Media seen as an ambulance carrying the body of actor Sushant Singh Rajput is leaves his residence in Mumbai on June 14, 2020.

In a video that has gone viral on social media, late actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s former partner Ankita Lokhande is seen emerging from the building he lived in, after a visit to his grieving family. Lokhande, also an actor, had been in a long and very public relationship with Singh since his days as a television star. When she comes out, a group of cameramen and television reporters rushes towards her with mics and a bunch of questions. Lokhande stops, turns back, buries her face in her hands. When she once again attempts to leave, the journalists chase her while the visibly shaken actor clasps her forehead and joins her hands, almost begging to be allowed to go. The reporters continue hounding her and she stumbles through the crowd until she is finally pushed into her car by her friends.

The reporting around Rajput’s death — including the mobbing of a clearly distressed Lokhande on Tuesday — has been a disturbing reminder of how several Indian newsrooms operate with an absolute disregard for empathy when it comes to covering stories of celebrity deaths. Remember the Indian TV anchor who climbed into a bathtub on live television to ‘recreate’ the circumstances of Sridevi’s death a few years ago?

While these organisations have been rightly criticised for their insensitive coverage of the actor’s death, what has not received enough attention is that most journalists handling these stories do not receive any training on how to report on them sensitively. And while there are clear guidelines publicly available on how to report on suicide sensitively, many big newsrooms which rarely accord importance to mental health choose to ignore this.

Vaiju Naravane, who has worked in many newsrooms and is currently head of the journalism department at Ashoka University, said that most newsrooms have no code of conduct or training imparted by editorial departments to young journalists on how to report on deaths, especially suicide. Often, news editors responsible for training journalists don’t have a clue about the ethics of reporting such stories themselves, she added.

“Because of revenue models crashing due to the advent of social media and in the race to grab stories and eyeballs, journalists are rushing to put out as many sensationalist, lip-smacking stories as possible,” she told HuffPost India.

Media seen outside the crematorium as celebrities arrive for Sushant Singh Rajput's funeral at VileParle, on June 15, 2020 in Mumbai.
Satyabrata Tripathy/Hindustan Times via Getty Images
Media seen outside the crematorium as celebrities arrive for Sushant Singh Rajput's funeral at VileParle, on June 15, 2020 in Mumbai.

But unless Indian media houses and journalism departments treat this incident as a wake-up call, it’s likely that the grotesque, triggering news reports produced this time will be repeated in the future as well.

‘Race to grab eyeballs’

In her widely-acclaimed book Compassion Fatigue: How The Media Sell Disease, Famine, War And Death, journalist Susan D. Moeller wrote that images of trauma are now closely linked to how the media markets itself to viewers.

“Watching and reading about suffering, especially suffering that exists somewhere else, somewhere interestingly exotic or perhaps deliciously close, has become a form of entertainment,” she writes.

While Moeller was referring to physical places in her essay, the space that a Bollywood star occupies in the psyche of an average consumer of news in our country could be also described in those terms. Therefore, every aspect of the 34-year-old’s death was breathlessly dissected on social media and by news channels that packaged the tragedy almost like ‘entertainment’.

A death often is a story. However, without any training, most journalists have to create their own boundaries and build their own ethics, and often end up having to compromise even those in a bid to meet the organisation’s demands.

Senior journalist Ranjona Banerji, who has decades of experience across several newsrooms, told HuffPost India that journalists in India aren’t trained in any manner to report on death, violence or rape and fall short when compared with large international media organisations.

“We barely even get a training in law. In all my years, only when I worked with the Living Media group in the ’80s, the India Today legal advisor would come and talk to us about what is libel, what is slander, what you do and what you don’t,” she said.

“Somebody I know pointed out that these stories are always reported by crime reporters who get their information from the police, so what’s used is police language,” which will not have the nuance or sensitivity needed in news reports, she said.

Journalist using a phone while reporting on the streets during the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Pallava Bagla via Getty Images
Journalist using a phone while reporting on the streets during the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Things haven’t changed much in the decades since then, either in journalism schools or media organisations.

A former journalist told HuffPost India that when she studied journalism at Calcutta University in the early 2000s, there was nothing in the coursework on how to cover deaths or the ethics they should keep in mind while reporting these stories. She went on to intern at Aaj Tak. During her six-week stint at the channel, she was once asked to pose as an ‘escort’ and hang out at pubs in Calcutta to ‘expose’ celebrities in the city. She was able to refuse to do it. The editorial department followed a similar sensationalist approach while covering deaths too, she recalled.

“They expected interns to get sensational stories as well. We were always asked to think what would ratchet up TRPs and get quotes like that,” said the woman, who wanted to remain anonymous.

Another Delhi-based woman journalist also told HuffPost India that when she studied at the Indian Institute of Mass Communication in New Delhi a decade ago, there was nothing in her course on the ethics of covering deaths and tragedies, something echoed by a journalist who graduated from the Asian College of Journalism in 2011.

“There was an ethics and media law class. But we were mostly taught about sources, libel and fact-checking. Sensitivity of reporting something wasn’t exactly a topic of discussion,” the IIMC graduate said.

Later, when she took up her first job as a trainee journalist at a popular news agency in India, she noted that editors always encouraged journalists to be aggressive while reporting stories such as the death of celebrities.

“While I was never asked to call up a dead person’s family, I saw how editors put pressure on senior colleagues to get the minutest and most private details. They were an agency, so there was also huge pressure to get this out first, before everyone,” she said.

Sonu Ojha, a journalist with Hindi daily Sanmarg, said that while they were never trained how to cover deaths, she does not face any pressure from her current editors to get an exclusive during such times.

However, she has experienced this in earlier jobs.

After nearly 80 people died in a fire at AMRI Hospital in Kolkata in 2011, Ojha was posted at SSKM Hospital where the corpses were being brought. She found it difficult to intercept bereaved families on their way to the morgue to identify the remains of their loved ones, but it was a job and “had to be done”.

“I really did not know what to feel. One woman I had to approach had come to identify the body of her husband. He was supposed to be released from the hospital the evening before the fire, but due to some logistical issue had postponed his own release till the next morning. She was inconsolable,” she said.

“The hardest part was to ask ’apnar ke gyachen’ (who in your family has died?) to the people coming,” she said.

Another Delhi-based woman journalist recollected how, after the same fire, she was at the hospital and overheard reporters discussing how the hospital had wrapped up the bodies in cloth so they couldn’t determine the age of the victim. If the victims were older, they didn’t make for “great” stories, they agreed. A senior colleague interviewed a bawling family, huddled around the body of their relative on a stretcher. “He quietly pulled aside a woman who was crying less. Kept asking her questions. Finally when he asked the victim’s age and she said he was 80, he stopped the interview and walked away, upset that he had wasted time on an old man,” she said.

She was asked to turn up at the morgue the next morning, where a young boy — perhaps in his teens — approached her to enquire the whereabouts of his brother, a labourer who had been admitted to the hospital after falling from a construction site. He couldn’t find his brother anywhere in the hospital, or the other places where the injured or dead had been taken. Soon, a flock of television journalists descended upon the boy and asked him to speak to the camera, pulling him about constantly and making him hold up his brother’s photo till the boy started weeping. When she protested and asked them to not treat him like that, she was told, “We have to keep our jobs, okay? Don’t lecture us.”

The episode was surreal. Later, when the report was aired, the hospital authorities checked and found that the brother’s body was with them. Ultimately, the report did help the boy find his brother, though nobody knew the cruelty that went into procuring it.

What’s the way out?

Naravane said that often, young journalists are geared after to go “after the truth”, without paying heed to how traumatic it may be for the affected parties. So journalism schools have a big responsibility to teach them how to stay within boundaries.

“In a survey we did with Bournemouth University on how sexual harassment and rape are covered, it emerged that journalists were given no brief beyond not naming communities or victims. Similarly, there is a lack of sensitisation and basic training which must be rectified. Journalism schools can do a great deal to change or at least improve that,” she said.

She said that at Ashoka University, they have included sessions on dealing with personal and sensitive subjects.

“We have to teach them that it is possible to cover suicide or similar tragedies without resorting to crude, in-your-face reporting while giving the relevant facts,” she said.

But many traditional media courses, which are more accessible and affordable for students, are yet to incorporate these lessons. So it’s essential that newsrooms take the lead and institute proper reporting guidelines.

The Hindu is one of the media organisations that has put in place clear guidelines on how to report on suicide.

In 2018, then editor Mukund Padmanabhan, with help from city editor and health reporter Ramya Kannan, drafted these guidelines and sent it to all the journalists.

We had listened to the concerns about how suicide is reported, particularly from Dr. Lakshmi Vijayakumar, founder of Sneha, a suicide-prevention centre. There were people in our editorial team that were similarly concerned, those that covered mental health particularly, and I recall N. Ram, the Chairman of the Group, also stressing the importance of having helpline numbers at the end of every story on suicide,” he told HuffPost India over email.

The reporting approach Padmanabhan encouraged on this was that “suicide is a public health issue”. This was meant to discourage triggering copy-cat incidents and remind people who harbour suicidal thoughts that there is help at hand.

“For the most part, the rules were followed, though there was the odd case when the guidelines were breached by failing to mention the helplines or providing too much unnecessary detail about what transpired. So, we weren’t perfect,” he recalled.

K.A. Shaji, a Kerala-based senior journalist who was working for The Hindu at the time, said that having the guidelines in place “instilled a sense of clarity” for reporters.

Sriram Karri, Hyderabad resident editor of Deccan Chronicle, said that their newsroom discussed the nuances of reporting on suicide for the first time after Rajput’s death. With guidance from their editor-in-chief, they set up rules to be followed while reporting. This includes saying “death by suicide” and not detailing the method.

Over the past decade, said Karri, the media has developed many guidelines like this through trial and error.

“Earlier, we did not have a guideline on how to or how not to report on acts of terror, on rape and sexual harassment, and certain kinds of crimes. We are still learning. There has been some change, certainly in the last 3-5 years in the English print media. But we still don’t have guidelines on how to report communal riots or how not to. It’s left largely to the sensibility of the newsroom and its editor,” he said.

Banerji said there was no doubt that the onus was on senior editorial teams and the management. But, depending on the newsroom, she suggested that young journalists could voice their concerns in small ways. “Speak to your immediate boss and see how that goes, or get together with other like-minded colleagues and at least try with your own copy to be as fair as you possibly can and take it from there.”

She also pointed out that there have been some, albeit slow, changes across the years—like the language on reporting communal riots changing significantly after the Babri Masjid demolition (many newsrooms now desist from using the word ‘clash’ when there is a power imbalance between the communities).

“Now there is always social media very closely watching everything you say and do as a journalist — it’s dissected by your readership who may not necessarily be experts. That also plays a role in how people respond (to salacious news coverage),” she said.

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This article exists as part of the online archive for HuffPost India, which closed in 2020. Some features are no longer enabled. If you have questions or concerns about this article, please contact