Lessons from the terror front

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Written By Anil Wanvari

 Posted on : 29 Nov 2008 01:02 pm

They came to terrify. And in many ways they have succeeded, if, only, for a while. The memories of a gun- and grenade-toting killer army, spraying hundreds of innocents with bullets, lobbing grenades at will, will probably never leave us. Thanks to news television.

I believe that the efforts of the army, the commandos, the NSG and the police to flush out the Taj Hotel, the Trident/Oberoi Hotels, and Nariman House offered to TV viewers images that will also stay embedded for a long, long time. Mumbaikars, nay Indians, were concerned, and in some cases affected by the terrorist strike, and wanted to know what is happening to those caught up in the mayhem.

News channels offered them updates, took them to the scene of the dastardly acts. And they also exposed the government‘s, the administration‘s, the army‘s, the police‘s and their own lack of preparedness to handle the crises.

India is a complex country. We have scores of news channels, probably more than any other nation in the world. Hence, our country requires unique treatment.

While reporters on the field of all the channels need to be lauded for staying on for hours together, reporting on developments even as shrapnel was streaking around and bombs were exploding, the key issue is could the coverage of the carnage have been managed better? And the answer is yes. The fault does not lie solely with the news channels. The fault lies with systemic failure and understanding of crisis media management by the folks who took up the rescue act, whether it is the government or the administration or the commandos or the police or the media which reported on it.

The lack of planning showed. Did anyone have a strategy – how to combat the terrorists or how to handle and manage media? It was alarming to see that no press briefing room was set up by the government or the administration or the police or the army and sound bytes were given by senior army officials and police out in the open. No protection was provided to either. Stray bullets, exploding window panes and shrapnel could have hit any one of them.

TV cameramen followed almost every move that the commandos made. News editors carried those images, but could they have been done so in a delayed manner, say with a 5-10 minute time lag right from day one so that terrorists may have not been able to keep a tab on what was being planned as has been alleged?

Could the reporters have asked more pertinent questions? Is there enough training being given to them on how to cover crises such as war or terror attacks? Most news stations internationally have war correspondents, who know how to handle themselves in demanding environments.

Could there have been more analysis – with crisis and terror management experts being brought in - from reputed studio anchors rather than playing the blame game with celebs who spouted venom against the system? Could they instead have offered solutions?

Indeed. News channels have been hard pressed for experienced journalistic talent, and hence have been putting relatively inexperienced journos on the field to handle tough situations. That is permissible if enough training is given to them.

A lot more homework could have been done by the news channels, an understanding provided of similar terrorists attacks the world over, and how they were handled. In the process, they could have eased the panic and sense of hopelessness that they instilled in viewers and all of us.

The news channels behaved like little boys in a school race all wanting to come first. Each one of them wanted to flash that exclusive. And that sometimes came in the form of canards, wild flights of imagination being flashed as insights and breaking news. Some of the Hindi channels really led in this with a sensationalist tone.

Not that the English channels were far behind. The itch to be seen as the leader forced one of the leading English anchors to voice again and again that they heard the breaking news first on his channel. It was as insensitive as you can get when almost the entire nation was quavering with fear and anger.

Clearly, a code of ethics and policies need to be put in place. Because going by the lack of focus of the government on anti-terrorism measures, a terrorist strike in another city may not be too far away. We are living in dangerous times. Hopefully, we will not see a repeat of the media management exercise we witnessed in Mumbai.

The news channels would do well to live up to their raison d‘etre well, that is, to inform, analyse, and investigate. Even if the government and administration are not doing their jobs well enough.

(Anil Wanvari is CEO and editor-in-chief of Indiantelevision Dot Com. He wrote this comment piece following the terrorist attacks on the Taj Mahal Hotel, The Oberoi Hotel in 2008 in Mumbai)

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