Based on her complaint, an FIR has also been registered against Sushant’s sisters, who had ‘allegedly’ prescribed drugs to him without consultation. The proceedings highlighted an unpleasant trait of the Indian media, which has now taken on the role of judge, jury, and executioner. Apart from dedicating an inordinate amount of airtime to the incident, several TV channels masqueraded their brand of sensationalism as investigative journalism. Social media did not take lightly to this as many members of the news fraternity were lampooned for the histrionics exhibited during the reportage of the event. There are criticisms aplenty concerning the breach of journalistic ethics here. If one goes by the WHO’s guidelines for reporting on suicides, especially celebrity deaths, most news channels in the country would be found in contravention. The guidelines include steering clear of speculation, not resorting to descriptions of the method of suicide, and not using language that sensationalises the act, and being discretionary in the use of photos.
However, the Rajput case was tainted with instances where images of the actor’s mortal remains were publicised. Similarly, the content of WhatsApp chats that were to be produced as evidence in court along with other materials was put in the public domain by the media. Even identification of witnesses was carried out by channels as well as interviews with them published. Such violations paint a deplorable picture of the Indian media. They also take away a quantum of trust people associate with news channels. And trust happens to be a casualty of the current media circus. A glimpse at the profiles of guests who appear as panelists on a given show tells us how little research might have gone into the inception of a news programme. It’s unfortunate many outlets depend on celebrity ‘specialists’ to drive home the point. Indian TV channels have imbibed many characteristics of their counterparts in the US, which also has an infamous history of trial by media. A case in point is former US President Bill Clinton, or the football legend OJ Simpson or even the King of Pop Michael Jackson, whose untimely death had spawned numerous conspiracy theories. However, it’s worth recalling American media had once been upheld as the gold standard to emulate in investigative journalism, thanks to the likes of Washington Post journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein whose reportage of the Watergate scandal paved the way for the resignation of President Richard Nixon.
Here in India, journalists have helped bring justice to high-profile cases such as the murders of Priyadarshini Mattoo, Jessica Lal, and Nitish Katara. But for every such positive example, the media also stumbled in cases such as the Arushi Talwar murder and the Jasleen Kaur harassment issue. The controversy surrounding Rajput’s death has prompted the Press Council of India to demand media outlets to adhere to the norms of journalistic conduct in covering cases under investigation. It also advised channels not to carry out a parallel trial of its own, as it puts undue pressure in the course of fair investigation and trial. For purists in the media industry and elsewhere, the fourth estate has always been about fair, impartial reportage, sans personal bias. But, in an age of prime-time breaking news, where ads and TRPs drive revenues and coupled with the fact that the audience demographic might probably have the attention span of a goldfish, such idealistic notions are being reduced to mere lip service. It’s imperative that the media takes a step back and owns up to its responsibility of being a watchdog of society even more seriously. Only then can it shed the tagline that has become most symbolic of it – Viewer Discretion Advised.