The outrage machinery

Published September 15, 2020
The writer is a journalist.
The writer is a journalist.

IT was hard to figure out what to write this week. Not that there was a shortage of issues but it is occasionally (perhaps frequently?) difficult to figure out what to say about the much-discussed topic that dominates a news cycle.

Earlier in the week, a Jane Fonda interview in the New York Times — which was a good read and even led to a long discussion with a friend — had caught my eye leading to thoughts about the shrinking space for English writing, apart from politics, in Pakistan. It was going to be a lament with much boring moaning and groaning from a subeditor on the lack of good writing such as profiles, interviews, long essays and even cultural writing, which once did exist. It would have been a nostalgia-ridden piece about the good old days when Herald and Newsline provided some space for stories and commentary, which were about more than just politics (which is not to say we are doing much justice to politics either for there is little political reporting also). Navel gazing is a frequent professional hazard.

But then the rape on the motorway happened. And the nonstop coverage of an important and not necessarily a ‘political’ issue began.

Since then, much has been said and written about women rights, rape and the judicial system, the police and the government. There was no shortage of coverage or material but it was not an easy watch even though most of the channels and shows were on the ‘right side’ as they had picked up the cudgels on behalf of the rape survivor.

Women lawyers, women activists and women police officers were conspicuous by their absence on the channels.

But then, as most Pakistanis would know well, good intentions are not enough.

In this case, the good intentions translated into outrage and noise without any empathy for the people involved. Did any one of us try to put ourselves in the shoes of the survivor and her family and imagine how the coverage would affect them? This after all is how we are supposed to make decisions when covering sensitive issues.

It is hard to believe most of those expressing their horror bothered to stop for five minutes to apply this rule to any editorial decision they made.

Partly, the problem is of sheer numbers. There are far too many news outlets and if each of them is covering an incident at the same time, the flashing red announcing ‘breaking news’ on channel after channel creates unacceptable levels of noise.

But not everything can be attributed to the multiplier effect.

There were constant visuals of the car and the greenery around; flashing coverage where one channel had a reporter shouting excitedly about their ‘scoop’ in the shape of the medico-legal report (in hindsight, it can’t even be said with certainty that they had the scoop); the dramatic music playing in the background; and the incessant shouting on the talk shows.

But the fights and shouting apart, when the focus shifted to the affected people, it was worse. In talk show after talk show, guests and their host tried their hardest to paint a picture of the pain and distress the survivor and the children must be going through and the burden they would carry for life. No one wanted to be left behind in their effort to show their concern. A female politician broke down as she tried to describe their lifelong trauma. In the process, empathy and good journalism lay trampled, abandoned at the door of many a television studio.

It was all well-intentioned, though.

Social media was no better where detailed threads were dropped, providing details about the survivor and her children that should have been left private. And then promptly shared by others.

No one considered if any of the reporting or information shared would have been bearable if one’s own loved ones were involved. A crime was committed and we are all too busy proving how strongly we felt about it. and if in doing so, there is an invasion of privacy, it should be ignored because it was well-intended.

It seems as if in recent years, the fear that our ‘goodness’ will not be noticed if we do not shout it when in front of the mike has made us forget that joining the outrage is not and should not be the role journalists assign themselves.

But as if this were the only problem with the coverage.

The guests are also a dissertation, just waiting to be written. Politicians are holding forth — the government ones should do nothing but agree to the removal of the CCPO and the opposition to condemn. Not for them any nuanced talk on the real issues such as the problems within our legal system, or how we need more resources for better investigation of rape cases or the need for special training of police personnel who respond to such crimes. What steps can be taken for a smoother judicial process and treatment of rape survivors during the court case? But few bothered, for such discussions would allow little room for shouting and confrontational exchanges.

Male journalists continue to dominate, and were allowed to hold forth on every aspect of the matter — from the incident, to crimes against women to the CCPO to even the night of the incident. Did we really need so much mansplaining? Women were still in short supply to discuss women rights, it seems. The women lawyers, women activists and women police officers were conspicuous by their absence on the channels. As one young academic noted in a tweet, one programme had a discussion about police training and gender sensitivity training of the personnel — with only men on the panel.

The intention was right, after all. But then are good intentions enough? In the world of today, it seems they are, for some of the people, all of the time.

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn, September 15th, 2020



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