Back in the day in the newsrooms of US broadcast media, deciding the lead or the main story of the day wasn’t difficult: ‘if it bleeds, it leads’, the saying went. In other words, news had to be sensational enough.
Shocking crime stories, especially involving high-profile people, still reign, as the media’s delirious coverage of the Sheena Bora murder mystery proves. There’s no doubt the case is inherently scandalous. A beautiful young woman is allegedly killed by her high-profile mother, Indrani Mukerjea, the wife of a top media executive.
The Mukerjeas are a complicated family of tangled, charged relationships. When she marries Peter Mukerjea -- former boss at Star TV -- Indrani discloses she had a daughter, Vidhie, from her previous marriage. She also had a sister, Sheena and brother Mikhail. That’s not all.
Sheena starts dating Rahul, Peter’s son from his earlier marriage. One fine day, Sheena drops a bombshell: she claims before Peter that she was Indrani’s daughter – not sister -- begotten from another marriage. Then, woosh! Sheena disappears. Three years later, the family driver spills the beans. A murder mystery is born.
Sheena Bora murder: Web of lies, confusing relationships emerge
What’s playing out on news television is an aggressive, hyperventilated coverage that’s concocting theories, speculating motives, questioning friends, ex-spouses and even neighbours. If privacies are being invaded, so be it.
Reporters are going head-to-head, even getting on to flights to follow people and to offer a blow-by-blow account of the unfolding saga. This high-profile crime story, like the ones before it, has grown into a national pastime. The joke is, if the media and the police collaborate, the murder would be solved faster.
A story such as this one about filicide – the act of a parent killing a child – will appear inherently scandalous to any reporter. Honestly, that’s true.
Stepfamily relationships are naturally complex. When parents remarry, loyalties of offsprings are said to clash. There are lingering tensions and there’s a build up to the actual offence. The alleged killer’s face is repeatedly shown, as is the victim’s, personal family details are discussed, forensic experts are called in to the studio, former police officers are summoned and socialites asked to provide a peek into their lives. Essentially, the story works not just because it’s to do with a murder, but because gossip becomes the news.
The Arushi Talwar murder case was the most recent filicide case when media reportage was microscopic. In fiercely competitive journalism, sensational-style reporting is a surefire way of transfixing the public.
But are we overdoing it? Is such salacious journalism, one that respects no boundaries, desirable or justified?
From a reporter’s point of view, there’s unavoidable drama in the Sheena Bora murder case. But all too often, gossip, speculation, half-truths and conjecturing actually get in the way of getting the story right.
There’s another moral problem: journalists may take on the role of judges. Sensational reporting flies in the face of some bedrock principles. The legal principle of ‘everybody is innocent until proven guilty’ is often violated.
How sensationalism impacts news has been well-researched. One overriding conclusion is that it distorts the news.
According to a study by sociologist Tai-Li Wang of National Taiwan University, who analysed cross-national television news in 14 countries, sensational reporting involved “Celebrities and ordinary people (who) tended to pose as news actors to personalize and dramatize the news more frequently than allowing officials or authoritative sources to legitimate the stories”.
Take the Sheena Bora case, in which friends and socialites have dominated studio discussions, when police and professional prosecutors have hardly spoken. Frequently, reporters will overlook the legitimate or legal rights of not just the victims, but also the accused.
Sanjeev Khanna confesses complicity in Sheena Bora murder: Police
There’s another disturbing dynamic. Social profiles are a key determinant of how far the media will go to follow up on a crime story. Anecdotal evidence at least suggests that high-society and urban crime stories are more likely to be comprehensively reported. And it isn’t as if the focus on crimes against women is naturally sharper in a country struggling to overcome gender bias.
Rape, dowry-related deaths, molestation and kidnappings of women increased by 26.7% in 2013, the latest year for which data are available.
The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) reported 309,546 crimes against women in 2013, against the previous year’s 244,270.
Yet, a Sheena Bora or an Arushi Talwar case gets disproportionate coverage. The brutal Nirbhaya rape-and-murder case is another instance. All of these crimes took place in urban India, the women involved were educated and belonged to the upper or middle classes. Both journalists and their urban audience it seems better relate to a crime story if the dramatis personae belong to the same social class as themselves.
Sensationalism isn’t always a bad thing. It can help create awareness about issues that are not glamourous enough but nonetheless important public causes. Campaigns to save the tiger is one example.
Yet, media can’t get enough of sensationalism. Health reporting is one area where sensational-style writing has become the norm to the point that findings are either distorted or exaggerated.
“Distorted journalistic reports can generate both false hopes and unwarranted fears,” according to a well-known paper by David F. Ransohoff of the University of North Carolina and Richard M Ransohoff of the Cleveland Clinic Foundation.
‘One perhaps puzzling aspect of sensationalism in medical reporting’ , the authors noted, ‘is that reports published in scientific journals may be so cautious in tone as to be considered dull, while the same research reported in the lay press may be sensationalized’.
Yellow journalism seems evergreen. It’s for the audience and readers to make sense of the sensationalism.