Last week the Editor’s Guild organised a forum on Challenges Facing the Media. As I sat listening to the usual reasons why standards of journalism in India are going down — poor training, arrogant journalists, structural problems, lack of resources, I was thinking of some of the visuals in newspapers and TV news channels that had disturbed me recently. And why none of the reasons being dished out applied to them.
The picture of a bandaged baby Falak, the battered two-year old who died after being on a hospital bed for weeks, the child who was beaten as a maid in Delhi or the little girl who had to drink her urine as punishment in West Bengal. Did we really need to show these visuals? The faces of the children were either fully visible or perfunctorily pixilated.
You could argue that showing them or talking about their trauma raises awareness. But it also destroys that child, his confidence, his life and psyche bit by bit. Most news channels and papers do not bother to hide the names of abused children. Their true identities, families, towns, and cities everything becomes public as soon as the news of their abuse does. What chance do these children have of a normal life afterwards?
To save children from such eventualities most countries have rules on how they will be depicted in news. India does too. There is the programme code which is a part of the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act 1995. Then there are the self-regulation guidelines that form part of the code for news channels that are members of the News Broadcasters’ Association. And some guidelines that are part of another self regulation code from the Indian Broadcasting Federation, which includes the entertainment television companies. For newspapers there are guidelines from the Press Council of India.
A read through shows that while they are well-intentioned, they are hopelessly inadequate when it comes to protecting the rights of children who are victims. And god forbid if they are poor children or ones who have don’t have a parent or guardian who can afford to shoo the media away. Note that most of the victims shown on television are lower middle class or poor.
However if you are reasonably well-off and your child is unfortunate enough to suffer some abuse or trauma, chances are you can ring him around with legal protection so that newspapers and television channels cannot create human interest fodder out of his life. This could save your kid decades worth of psychological scarring.
So why does media show their faces or reveal their identities? If you asked most newspaper and TV editors they will agree that it shouldn’t be done. Why then are their instructions to their reporters not clear on this?
You could argue that in a market where news standards are anyway in a free fall who can worry about children. And that brings me to the nub of thing. Children remain the one part of India that remains under represented at any forum. The youth dominate any discussion on the economy or markets because they form half the population. Older people can, largely, speak for themselves.
But children are different. Whether it is fighting for space to play in parks that are being taken over by grown-ups or in the way their parents push them into TV shows or simply beat them up, most children do not have the wisdom and means to understand and demand their rights. It therefore falls on the grown-ups around them, on society at large to do that.
Of this news media is an integral part. Even as it helps bring injustices to the fore it is perpetuating a big one by not standing up for children where it matters. As the media discusses its challenges, the lack of good sense when showing or discussing battered children, may not be a bad place to start.
The writer is a media specialist and author. Follow her on twitter at http://twitter.com/vanitakohlik