Saturday, October 19, 2013

Journalism that exploits

At about 5pm on Wednesday October 17, as I was running through a list of stories submitted by reporters that day, one particular headline caught my eye - Abused 4-year-old-girl flees from home.

There are many cases where very young children are abused, but rarely does a child that young actually leave! I read the raw copy submitted by the reporter and found that there was an accompanying photo to go with the story too, as police were hunting for the girl's parents.

The story would definitely make an interesting read, and a quick search revealed that other news websites had not published the story yet, plus 5pm to 7pm is the peak period when the website experiences heavy traffic.

In short this was a story that would definitely garner a lot of reads. However I decided not to put up the story just yet.

In journalism sensitivity is key

Anybody who works in journalism, and even those who don't, must surely know that when reporting on cases of violence and abuse against women and children, the identity of the victim must be protected.

The case of 4-year-old Nandini however is an exception. She was found wandering alone at an unearthly hour on Oct 9 by a good samaritan. After a week of trying to locate her parents/guardians, police finally decided to release her details to the media, in the hope that people who know the girl might come forward with information to help in the probe.

As such the story must have key details like her name, photo, age, where she was found. If not how to identify her right? Considering that such details had to be released, especially her photo, the way the story was put forward became doubly important.

Which is why I refrained from putting up the story on the website at the earlier opportunity. I felt that it would be best to let the newsdesk editors rewrite the story in a way that would get the message out there and at the same time protect the interest of the child.

It proved to be a wise move. The editors decided to run the story on the front page with the girl's photo and name - to inform the public that police are hunting for her parents. But the story was tastefully written, yes she was hit with a hammer and pinched with pliers. No longer being able to take the abuse she fled. That was the story we put forth to the public.

theSun's front page on Oct 17, 2013.

Read the story here

Then I saw this! It appears that the whole objective of this story is to sell sensation rather than help the police with their probe.

The Malay Mail's front page on Oct 17, 2013

The story on page four of The Malay Mail starts of with
" IT was a horrendous discovery - a sexually assaulted, starving little girl tortured by unknown barbarians with pliers, spanners and screwdrivers..........."

Paragraph six of the article
" A police source said the initial medical report also showed injuries to her private parts".

The first paragraph might titillate a paedophilia or one with sadistic tendencies, I imagine the introductory paragraph was written to curry the imagination of readers, but this is a child we are talking about here! A child who is still alive. After all that has happened to her, the last thing this little girl needs is for the whole country to be talking about her, to have these details dodge her for years to come.

Paragraph six was totally unnecessary! The objective of the whole reportage should have been to help police find the child's parents, not milk it for every sensational bit it was worth.

In paragraph three, they have included the bit that police have released the girl's photograph to seek the help of the public to track down her parents. However the only photo in the article was of tools purpotedly used to abuse the child.

So why did The Malay Mail not publish a photo of the child? Cos then they would not have been able to turn it into such a sensational piece. Naturally they won't get into trouble for this, as both photograph and name was omitted.

But as far as I am concerned they are guilty nevertheless for failing to protect the interest of this child. This story is not a Malay Mail exclusive, it was revealed by police at a press conference to all the media, where a photograph of the little girl was also officially released.

They ( The Malay Mail folks) must have known that the photo and name of the little girl would likely be published by the other media organisations. I mean how many four-year-old girls who were abused could have run away in the same week right?

So anyone who read theSun and The Malay Mail on Thursday Oct 17 would have known it was the same little girl right? The Star ran the story on Friday Oct 18 with her name sans photo. So a big thank you to The Malay Mail for violating the privacy of this little girl and for putting forth a glittering example  of how to sell a paper.

Yeah I get it that The Malay Mail needs to sell copies in an environment that has become increasingly challenging for the print media. But at what price? 
On Thursday soon after copies of theSun hit the streets, we received many calls from members of the public, outraged at what the little girl had suffered, many of them wanted to offer her food and shelter, some wanted to visit her, in a nutshell everyone who called, wanted to do what they could to help her.

By the end of Thursday, no one had come forward yet with information on Nandini's parents/guardians. So we ran this piece on page four, urging those who knew the girl or her family to contact the police.

We in the media have access to a powerful platform, how we use it makes all the difference. Naturally the media is a business too, but we need to have a moral conscience, we need to be about values, about community and ethics.
theSun's story on Oct 18, 2013.
 A brave little girl

The story of the little girl who fled her home because she decided enough was enough had captured the imagination of theSun's readers. Many felt sympathy, but they also admired her for being so brave, how many children at that age would even think of leaving? The fact that she did, says something about this child.

Looking at her photo, one can see the scars on her face, but there's also a steely determination in those eyes.  Nobody stays a victim forever, I believe this little girl is destined for greater things in future, remember Oprah?  

A previous blog posting on a similar topic
Compassionate Journalism

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