Media’s crucial role in reporting terrorist incidents needs responsibility

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    media and responsibility
    Representative photo

    A lot has been spoken and written about the recent ambush of an Indian Air Force [IAF] convoy in the Poonch district of J&K that left one air warrior dead and four others injured. Given the seriousness of the incident, the interest generated is a positive sign as it indicates the high degree of public concern on Pakistan’s continuing proxy war against India. Moreover, despite heightened emotions, discussions and debates on this incident have largely been constructive in nature, which is a positive.

     Almost all news channels and media houses initially reported one fatal and five non-fatal casualties but after release of the official press statement, they amended the casualty figures to one dead and four injured and such a minor variation in casualty figures is understandable.

    However, a news report claimed that 12 soldiers had been injured in this attack and that the terrorists had managed to take away an unspecified number of weapons. Despite being completely at variance with other reports on the incidents, it nevertheless gained traction because it was posted on the website of a leading India business and financial media house. It was even quoted by some very reputed analysts to project a pessimistic outlook.

    While the concerned media house quietly removed this news report from its website without issuing any corrigendum, incorrect reporting created an impression in the minds of many that the security forces were trying to conceal casualty figures. It also painted a distorted picture of the incident by implying that just 4 to 5 terrorists were able to completely overawe more than a dozen armed IAF soldiers and after injuring them, successfully decamped with their weapons without suffering any casualties.

    It has since emerged that the air warriors suffered one fatal and four non-fatal casualties and that no weapons were taken away by the terrorists, and these inputs completely change the perceived complexion of the incident.

    The fact that despite having successfully ambushed the IAF convey at a place and time of their own choosing, as well as being armed with sophisticated weapons including state-of-art American M4 rifles, the terrorists were still not able to inflict extensive casualties on the IAF soldiers, and nor were they able to snatch any weapons clearly indicates that it was the fierce and effective response of the air warriors that compelled the terrorists to beat a hasty retreat.

    Regrettably, the inaccurate news report of a dozen casualties and weapon snatching made terrorists appear to be ‘supermen’ and portrayed the IAF soldiers as easy pushovers who allowed their weapons to be snatched. However, it’s abundantly clear that there was no malafide intention on anyone’s part and it was only the inclusion of inaccurate details in the news report that gave critics a stick to beat the government and defence forces.  

    The media is often accused of falling prey to ‘breaking news syndrome’ and end up showing undue haste in publishing news on incidents of terrorism. Highlighting the right of people to know what’s happening in real time, the media stoutly justifies the publication of uncorroborated reports by citing official tardiness in announcing details of casualties. However, blaming security forces for undue delay in furnishing details about casualties for factual inaccuracies in a news report is being rather unfair.

    It needs to be appreciated that when there’s a terrorist attack that results in casualties, sensitivity demands that the tragic news to the near and dear ones of those who have made the supreme sacrifice comes as a personal message from the commanding officer of the unit to which the deceased belonged and not through a perfunctory media announcement. As the next of kin [NoK] of those martyred rightly want to know more details of the incident, facts have to be ascertained which though a time consuming exercise cannot be dispensed with.

    It is neither intended to target the media house that published the news report being discussed as this isn’t the first time that an inaccurate report on terrorism related incident has been published. In fact there have been numerous such cases and why go far? The writer can quote his own example- though only injured during an anti-terrorist operation in J&K, he was promptly declared ‘dead’ by the local print media. This happened in the mid 90s when there was no social media, yet the speed with which this ‘news’ reached home was amazing and he alone knows what his family went through due to this untrue report!

    Since misreporting of terrorism related incidents has become a common occurrence, there’s a crying need for the media to introspect and institute appropriate measures to avoid inaccurate reporting. 

    The first thing the media needs to do is to overcome the temptation to get into the ‘breaking news’ rat-race and curb its craving for proudly announcing for using the  “you heard it first on this channel”catch-phrase. Accordingly, reporters covering any terrorist related incident need to be more cautious and beware of blindly accepting patently questionable inputs coming from officials and sources “speaking on the condition of anonymity”.

    Furthermore, even though the initial news report about an incident may have been compiled by local scribe having considerable experience of reporting on terrorist related incidents, there’s a definite need for media houses to analytically peruse the contents of the news report before its publication.

    Any unprecedented input definitely needs corroboration. In the instant case, the news report mentioned terrorists snatching weapons from injured soldiers and this is something that has  never ever happened before in more than three decade old ongoing proxy war in J&K.

    Terrorists have never ever been able to snatch a weapon from any soldier who’s alive because for an Indian soldier, allowing an adversary to take away his personal weapon while he has life still left in him is not only unthinkable and most disgraceful but also sacrilegious. This explains why the dead bodies of so many Indian soldiers killed in combat are found tightly clutching their weapons!

    Most importantly, the media in India needs to realise that unlike Rawalpindi which conceals its military casualties to the extent of even refusing to accept the mortal remains of its dead soldiers, the Indian defence forces proudly honour its fallen rank and file by publicly accepting and saluting their supreme sacrifice.

    As explained earlier, the perceived ‘delay’ in disseminating casualty data isn’t an attempt at concealment by the defence forces but out of sheer respect for human sensitivities. However, it’s also a fact that this does create a paradoxical situation- while the defence forces need time to confirm facts and intimate the NoK of the deceased before releasing information of casualties to the press, the media needs to keep its subscribers updated on the incident.

    Hence there’s definitely a need for better coordination and mutual understanding between the defence forces and a media so that both can fulfil their onerous responsibilities.

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