Last week, the HT published a story of a teenage girl who was injured when a tree branch fell on her, and eventually lost her leg because it had to be amputated,” said Arnab Bhattacharya. “I compliment you for reporting this tragic incident, among many others in the recent past through which HT has brought out the sorry state of the BMC in terms of ensuring it carries out its civic responsibilities. In this case, it was tree pruning.
“After the [front-page] report appeared on Monday, August 16, with the headline ‘Xavier’s girl loses leg after tree branch falls on her’, there have been follow-up articles, many with the headline ‘Xavier’s girl…’.
“I question the rationale for highlighting ‘Xavier’s’ in the headline. Which college the girl goes to had nothing to do with the particular incident! Why bring that into the picture? Are such incidents more important if they befall students of a particular college?
‘I do not think the reporter would say — and I’m just choosing some random names — ‘Bandodkar girl loses leg’ or ‘S.P. Mandali’s girl loses leg’.
‘Teenage girl loses leg due to BMC callousness’ would probably have done equally well! I would appeal to you to put a bit more thought into the headlines of stories.”
First, I’d like to thank the reader for his thoughtful letter. Second, I’d like to clarify that editors, not reporters, make the final decisions about headlines, especially those on the front page.
Finally, let me turn to the substance of the criticism. As usual, I turned to the editor who handled the first story.
“We used the term ‘Xavier’s girl’ on the first day in order to connect immediately with Mumbai readers,” said Pravinchandran Nair, HT Mumbai’s deputy editor. “On the following days, ‘Xavier’s girl’ became the quick-recognition term for the story; many readers who called in to discuss the story with us used it too. But if it offends readers’ sensibilities, we can certainly avoid using such labels.”
On the one hand is Bhattacharya’s critique: The newspaper used the word ‘Xavier’s’ to indicate the girl’s class background because it felt that this would attract readers, most of who are also from the same milieu, to the story.
On the other is Nair’s response: The newspaper used the label in order to give the girl an identity. The specific ‘Xavier’s’, rather than the general ‘college’, is much more likely to evoke an image of her striding purposefully through an arched entrance every morning before the tragedy.
It’s difficult to deny that class bias, among others, plays out in many ways in the media. But is this an instance of it?
Bhattacharya is right that the newspaper would not have said ‘Kirti girl loses leg…’ had she been from Kirti College. But is that because Kirti College doesn’t have a cachet for the newspapers’ readers or simply because it is not as widely known as Xavier’s? It is probably a bit of both. Would the newspaper instead have used her address, say ‘Dadar’, as the label? I think it would have.
But more fundamentally, would the newspaper have given the girl so much coverage had she been from a slum in Deonar? Would it even have got to know about the incident?
What do readers think?