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How necessary are sensational photographs for hard-hitting journalism?

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The second wave of the covid-19 pandemic has brought fresh woes to the Indian population. Heart-wrenching accounts of numerous succumbing to the virus, following unavailability of hospital beds and oxygen equipment has rendered the country stupefied at the face of such widespread human devastation. As is expected, a general aura of fear mixed with anger at the perceived mismanagement of the situation has pervaded the halls of the discourses on social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook. From politicians to intellectuals to journalists to the common Indian, nearly everyone has opined on the state of affairs.

While the raging pandemic has been covered in assiduous detail since its arrival in India, a recent trend of photographs taken at disturbingly close proximity at Hindu cremation grounds or crematoriums has been seen doing the rounds, from social media sites to newspapers, both Indian and International. Unsurprisingly, this has attracted a slew of comments weighing in on the multifarious repercussions of such reporting.

There are several sides to the story. The photographs which most people must surely have chanced upon somewhere or the other, are deeply discomfiting. They capture burning funeral pyres, sometimes at close range, sometimes taken from drone shots. They depict the dancing flames, placed alongside logs of yet-to-be used wood, carelessly strewn on heaps of ash while distraught family members shielded in PPE kits broke down, visibly distressed, some even on their knees, as if crippled by their grief. These photographs are bound to unsettle anyone. However, one must ask, is that all it does?

When the proliferation of these photographs became difficult to miss even by the most disconnected individual, it began to draw widespread criticism from experts as well as lay people. The arguments advanced were varied. To begin with, ordinary people decried the media for their “vulturism” and poorly-disguised efforts at capitalizing on human anguish. They pointed out the moral bankruptcy of invading a moment which is held extremely sacred in the Hindu community; that of the kriyakaram. Many were aghast at how the reporters showed no consideration for the privacy of the mourning, least of all, the dead.

Another point raised was from those who not only felt offended by the above mentioned but also felt that depicting solely Hindu cremations, while abstaining from covering Muslim or Christian burial grounds was an insinuatory obfuscation. They felt it showed the community in poor light, and was indeed used to paint India in a sorry light by International publications such as the New York Times which plastered these images across their pages with captions critiquing India’s gross failure at handling the pandemic.

A significant amount of outrage was also directed towards the fact that such pictures only seemed to have been emanating from India. With countries such as the United States, Italy and Brazil which too suffered similar (if not greater) devastation, where the number of dead bodies overwhelmed the systems of cremation or burial, one could hardly remember images of this type from these countries gaining such massive global mileage and hullaballoo, or in short, commanding such a disproportionate level of attention. Several Indians were aggrieved at the way a noxious interplay of this deeply sorrowful human moment was purportedly used to malign India’s image in the International arena as a country that floundered, flailed and remained embarrassingly short of what it was required to do. A widely shared tweet read;
Crematoriums are holy places where we mourn our loss, send our dear ones onwards, not places you use to gloat! You are a big disgrace to India
Another put this question to the journalists;

“Burning or burial of the dead is a sacred, profoundly private act. US media never disrespected their dead from 9/11 to Covid. Nor did media of France, Germany, Italy, UK, China or any self-respecting nation. It’s your prerogative, but just asking: Was this necessary?”

Many felt that in an attempt to criticize the ruling dispensation, what too had been thrown under the proverbial bus was the country, its people, its majority community and the efforts of those who had tirelessly worked to hold on to the reins of a rapidly spiraling situation. As to how many of these arguments hold water, is for the reader to decide.

Of course, every action has an equal and opposite reaction. And so, when the criticisms started mounting, there were several others who disparaged the claims made by those opposing the wide circulation and excessive mileage that these photographs were getting. Prominent individuals also took to Twitter to promptly counter these claims. They were of the opinion that the anger directed at such coverage was a concerted effort by the government to stymie any criticism directed towards it. They also proclaimed that journalists and photographers were putting their own lives on the line to bring such images to the public. It was nothing but a hallmark of tireless and meticulous journalism that sought to uphold the true state of affairs and not allow any fabrications as to the number of Covid-19 deaths or the scale of desolation that the second wave had wreaked on India. Barring the self-congratulations of these journalists themselves, there were several who, disgruntled with the way things were being managed by the government, supported the capturing and publications of such images. Following are few notable tweets:

From a distinguished politician of the opposition party;

“Every truly patriotic Indian stands with you, …………& other journalists who are risking their lives and peace of mind to bring the nation the truth about our present crisis. There is no substitute for honest reporting in a democracy. Keep up the great work.”

From a notable commentator;

“Kudos to all the brave journalists-both domestic and foreign-who are bearing witness to this moment. Emotionally taxing to report on death anywhere, but in India you must also deal with hordes of angry hyper-nationalists upset that you’re “spoiling India’s image”. #COVID19India’’.

In recent times, mental health has become a part of the mainstream discourse, and rightfully so. What earlier remained a problem shirked to the periphery, has now become so central to public life that even the government has launched helplines such as Kiran to aid those suffering in the pandemic. The PIB regularly comes out with snippets of infographics aiming to alert the audience of pandemic-related stress and anxiety and stresses on the need to minimize news consumption. All of us, might be able to verify, if not by anything else then by purely anecdotal evidence that the barrage of news relating to deaths, rising numbers, new variants, patients shuddering to take breaths and people dying by roadsides and on pavements due to an overwhelmed health infrastructure has deeply affected either our own selves or someone we know.

A NEW ANGLE

One must have come across the term “trigger warnings”. It is a statement made prior to sharing potentially disturbing content. It might encapsulate references to topics such as abuse, self-harm, violence, among many others and can come in the form of video clips, audio clips texts and of course, images. The general idea is that what is depicted has the potential to remind one of a previous traumatic experience. It is something that can provoke, among many other sentiments, distress and fear and deep sorrow, with the potential to create a detriment in the mental state of the one viewing it. So, if a person suffers from anxiety or depression, which are extremely tough to grapple with, them viewing something which is disturbing could do great harm to their efforts towards their mental health.

These trigger warnings can be found on images uploaded on Facebook. The tag ‘NSFW’ often accompanies many images on Reddit which might be gruesome or violent or just potentially disturbing in some way or the other. All of this is to say, that the viewer has the choice to view it or not as the warning alerts them that what lies behind the curtain might be distressing to them.

WERE THE PHOTOGRAPHS REALLY NECESSARY?

Although trigger warnings come with a fair set of controversies in and of themselves (as to their effectiveness), one might largely agree that it is always good to have a choice in seeing (or not seeing) something that might play on a loop like a broken record, inside the mind.

So, notwithstanding the several arguments advanced from both perspectives, what seems to be missing is the much crucial point of how indispensable were these photographs and what effect did these have on a purely human level?

PATRIOTISM, BRAVERY OR MERE SENSATIONALISM?

At least on social media, one expects a warning, but what does one do when on picking up the morning newspaper, the front page greets you with the macabre image of several burning pyres, dogs walking among them, people in PPE kits with their heads pressed to the ground, in some inexplicable display of visceral pain? It is too far-fetched to argue that such an image can deal a significant blow to any, most of all a fragile, mind? I too had been caught off-guard by one such image on the very front page of a leading English daily. I remember being horrified but unable to tear my eyes away from the ghastly sight, unable to quite look away despite the nausea it invoked in me, akin to a deer caught in headlights. For the rest of the day, whenever I would close my eyes, the same image would come flitting in, evoking a feeling in me that was deeply despairing. I seemed to have no control over my mind that day.

Therefore, the question begs to be asked. Is it that, the numbers don’t speak? Are we to believe that had these journalists not gone and captured these images and videos of the cremation grounds, it would somehow have been less believable that people were dying? If someone tells you that 3000 people succumbed to the virus on a day, is it that you do not accept that data unless you have images that can really hammer the point home?

The second question one must ask is, how is it that these images suddenly became the hallmark of ‘’transparency” in journalism. How are images of funeral pyres in any way a bulwark against the alleged botching up of numbers of the real casualties that the government has been accused of doing? As a veteran journalist put it (while facing abundant criticism for making a makeshift office within a crematorium from where she reported as the last rites of many took place in the background), the backlash she received was just “old troll tricks” by politically motivated parties to “sanitize (the) scale of horror unfolding”. Was it really so? Is horror not amply conveyed without doing something as horrible as bombarding people with trauma-inducing material? Is a written piece somehow less believable if there isn’t an image accompanied with it? Or, is creating controversy the easiest and most surefire way to grab eyeballs and social media traction, that every media outlet must surely desire?

WHAT ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH?

When one examines the arguments put forth by those supporting the publication of such images, it is quite easy to see the obvious fallacy in their logic. Even if one might not agree with any or even all the points given by the side that criticized these images, it’s not difficult to accept that all these pictures do is whip up the sensationalizing of cremating the dead. Beyond that, it is challenging to see exactly what purpose these images serve. As one journalist from the New York Times termed them, these pictures are indeed “Stunning”. They stun and haunt and disturb the mind. They are plastered across newspapers where one has no choice or no prior knowledge that they might encounter something of that sort. For a culture so concerned with mental health, how is it that anyone failed to see the obvious repercussions that these images might have on the same?

When songs with unsavory lyrics, or scenes from Netflix shows can be “triggering”, can’t an image of a lit pyre also bring back harrowing memories leading to a deterioration of mental health, especially now when hardly anyone can claim to not have lost someone to the virus and thereby having to participate in at least one last rite? How is it that books and articles come with trigger warnings where something potentially disturbing is described in text but not when such an image finds its way into almost every Indian home through front page photographs in English and vernacular newspapers? Is it too far-fetched to say that images can have a much more debilitating impact than words can? Does mental health no longer matter when it is pitted against which newspaper can draw the greatest number of eyes by depicting the most awfully dramatic photograph?

Speaking from a purely personal perspective, I believe it when the newspapers tell me that the country is grappling with the second wave. I believe the numbers and I believe the oxygen shortages and the articles telling me that the health infrastructure is on the verge of collapse. I even share the anger directed towards the government, be it of the states or the central government, for their failures in saving precious Indian lives.

The argument that those images were “heroic” on the part of journalists seems to be a clever masquerading of the fact that no one asked them to be heroic. Equating such coverage with patriotism seems almost laughable. Insensitivity of the media can’t be defended as a weapon to stop the apparent sanitization of the scale of horrors that was supposedly taking place. It seems a sanctimonious stance-at best, and a patronizing one at worst- for these journalists to take, trying to show the “true horror” to those who have been living the same day after day. What appears is that in their zest to pursue “Transparent and brave journalism” to bring the “real picture” in front of the Indian public these “heroes” covered mental health in a shroud and kicked that into the funeral pyre as well.

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