Covid Reportage: How To Identify Vulturism, Voyeurism From Journalism

by R Jagannathan - May 19, 2021 12:26 PM +05:30 IST
Covid Reportage: How To Identify Vulturism, Voyeurism From JournalismVulture journalism.
Snapshot
  • Vulture journalism can be compounded by insensitive journalism.

    Separating vulture journalism from good journalism involves applying a simple rule: if you can show a traumatic visual to your child without flinching, you are on the right track.

When Washington Post journalist Annie Gowen referred to a picture of multiple funeral pyres burning on the ground as “stunning” in the context of the Covid death wave, she was widely criticised for being “insensitive” and “racist”.

She could have chosen to clarify that she may have used the wrong word, but instead she went on to justify her usage of the word — which usually has a positive association — by tweeting: “Many of you chose to misinterpret my use of the word “stunning” as something other than shocking. That’s on you. I salute the brave Indian journalists covering this devastating crisis.”

Hands-up those who take this explanation at face value. How many of you would have used the word “stunning” to describe pictures of 9/11 or similar devastation involving human tragedy, as in the current Israeli-Hamas conflict?

I don’t hold anyone responsible for some careless comment made on Twitter on the spur of the moment, for one is prone to make such mistakes, but should one continue defending the indefensible?

Matters got worse when some Indian journalists joined the chorus, and soon many Indian newspapers, including some Hindi ones who ought to know better, started using such visuals in their publications. Thus, was born the reference to “vulture journalism”.

The term has been used to describe journalists and publications that not only printed pictures of multiple open-air funeral pyres, but also visuals of dead bodies floating down the rivers or people desperately gasping for oxygen when the shortage was acute in Delhi and other states.

However, there is a thin line separating vulture journalism — which can be described as deriving voyeuristic satisfaction from printing or commenting on such dire visuals — from sheer ignorance, data illiteracy, and a refusal to probe deeper into why such things happen.

A bereaved person expressing anger and grief in front of a camera makes for great TV, for humans in general are more moved by emotional stories than data or reason. But surely journalists cannot pretend that their job is merely to tug at the heart strings and not dig deeper.

Many arguments have been adduced in favour of such insensitive journalism, and they include the following: showing multiple funeral pyres is fine, for even Western media shows multiple caskets of the dead waiting to be buried; two, publishing these visuals is about speaking truth to power, and holding the government accountable for its failures in tackling Covid; and three, the government does not want these visuals shown and stories told.

Thus, anyone who does not agree that this insensitivity should be avoided is essentially sold out to the government.

Let’s take them one by one.

#1: Is showing a large number of funeral caskets the same as showing multiple funeral pyres burning in the background? This is false equivalence, cultural ignorance and illiteracy. Anybody who has even a nodding acquaintance with Hindu cremation rituals and Abrahamic burial rites should know the essential difference: in a burial, the human body remains intact under the ground.

Moreover, there is a tombstone where those bereaved can go every year to remember the dead and pay their respects. Burial is a physical thing. In contrast, cremation is an act of finality, where not only does the physical body disappear to merge with the eternal, but even the ashes are not preserved, and immersed in the seas or rivers.

The meaning of cremation in the Hindu (or Indic) context is completely different from the meaning of a burial in the Judeo-Christian context. A Hindu witnessing his near and dear ones being consigned to the flames views this as an emotional, private and personal event, not a public one. Of course, this does not apply if you are a deracinated Hindu who accepts the Western framework and meanings of death.

#2: Speaking truth to power and holding governments to account cannot mean abandonment of sensitivity. One can have no quarrel with reporters who write about what is happening in crematoria or about many bodies being sent down the Ganga or other rivers. Clearly, these incidents are worth reporting and governments must be held to account for the same.

However, any responsible journalist has to go beyond the obvious. They need to ask why this has been happening in the current context. Why are crematoria overwhelmed and whether the rush of bodies could have been anticipated? Why are dead bodies floated down the river?

There is little doubt that crematoria and graveyards would have been overwhelmed by the sudden spike in deaths, from under 100 daily Covid deaths (all over India) at the start of February to nearly 40 times that number now. No preparation can make existing crematoria ready for a 40-fold increase in Covid deaths in a matter of weeks.

Without these additional explanations, every human story of grief and anger becomes one only about official apathy and an insensitive state — which is misleading.

What about floating bodies? There are three possibilities that come to mind, and they need to be investigated. One is that hospitals overburdened with an excess of dead bodies took the easy way out and dumped some of them in the river. But while this can happen with unclaimed bodies, it is unlikely that the dead have no grieving relatives around. Could the latter have agreed to the water disposal or burial in shallow grounds next to the river? Again, one can only surmise.

No human being is likely to agree to such a casual way of disposing of bodies unless there are important reasons for doing so. These could relate to the distance they would have had to travel carrying an infected body for a regular cremation or burial. Fear of being infected can be strong if the wait is too long and ambulances or trucks are tough to come by.

The cost of cremation for the poor, shortage of wood and distance to the nearest crematorium are factors in this tragedy (read here, here). In Chausa, Ghaziabad, where normally there are two or three cremations, 60 started arriving daily towards the end of April and early May.

#3: Everyone who disagrees with the views of an Annie Gowen or a Barkha Dutt is essentially trying to defend the government, especially the Modi government. This statement can be true for some people, but not all the journalists who have been favourably disposed to the Modi government. One can just as easily say that those who are eager to excessively criticise the government are also guilty of seeing only one side of the picture.

Can one be sure that those taking vivid pictures of cremations are motivated purely by journalistic instincts, uncontaminated by thoughts of selling these pictures for huge sums to foreign publications? Or maybe even a chance of winning a photo journalism award. If we question motives, we need to question all motives.

The reality of existing infrastructure being overwhelmed by the Covid fatalities cannot be wished away and no one can object to any journalist reporting on these issues with sensitivity and care. But speaking truth to power does not mean speaking insensitively or showing visuals that can traumatise not just adults but also children unused to devastation on such a large scale.

Vulture journalism can be compounded by insensitive journalism. Separating vulture journalism from good journalism involves applying a simple rule: if you can show a traumatic visual to your child without flinching, you are on the right track.

Reporting with words is different from reporting through vivid visuals. TV and photo journalists need to take more care than those who use mere words to describe a situation.

Jagannathan is Editorial Director, Swarajya. He tweets at @TheJaggi.
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