Fortunately, the worst is said to be over and we can breathe easy again. But there in now an outbreak of severe acute reactionary syndrome that may be much more difficult to control. The media is under the scanner for scaring everyone silly over the severe acute respiratory syndrome or SARS. The indictment, like the disease, is global. From Taipei to Toronto, from New Zealand to the UAE, the verdict is unanimous: the real crisis was the news-borne transmission of fear and loathing of a newly discovered virus.
For the first Indian who tested positive, the experience was traumatic. “The media hype, baseless reports and unprofessional attitude put me, my family and friends through a lot of mental torture,” said Prashil Varde, soon after his release from a Goa hospital. Calcutta’s hapless three could say worse. “But the media believe — and I can’t say they’re wrong — that people just enjoy being scared,” says Caltech president and Nobel Prize-winning virologist, David Baltimore. “And because their readers and viewers enjoy it, the media play to it.”
It’s tough to do anything else. A news-editor in Calcutta said he had wanted to be restrained but the pressure from competitive journalism was far too great. You just have to shout harder when the decibel level is so high. Or risk losing out altogether. It was all the more difficult with a newsroom throbbing with excitement over a sure winner: a strange new disease that everybody wanted to know about. As one intrepid young reporter who went to interview a SARS patient put it, “It was probably ignorance and stupidity, but it’s an amazing story.”
It is this cocktail of over-enthusiasm and cynical calculation that resulted in those screaming “SARS comes to city”-type headlines (it hadn’t), which repeatedly described SARS as “deadly” (9 out of 10 recover), named the patients (you don’t in socially sensitive cases like rape and AIDS), gave conflicting medical advice and lurid reports of panic that sparked off more panic. And it will be the same story whenever another peripatetic, poorly understood microbe comes calling.
Who rules Delhi'
Who rules Delhi, the Times of India or the Hindustan Times' The answer my friends is blowing in the wind. Another inconclusive round in their battle for supremacy over the nation’s capital flared up last week when the Times tomtomed, on its page one, the latest Indian Readership Survey that puts it just ahead of its arch rival by 41,000 copies. Rubbish, the HT shot back on its front page over two days, and pointed to several “goof-ups” in the survey’s findings that made it utterly “unreliable”. Instead, HT held up the rival National Readership Survey for its “far more consistent — and plausible — picture”. Needless to add, it also shows HT as Delhi’s leading English language newspaper. Then, on Saturday, Economic Times, Times of India’s sister publication, took up the cause, publishing a report that sought to dispel HT’s charges and reaffirm faith in the IRS’s “most dependable study on media penetration”. Since then both sides have withdrawn to the sidelines, till one or the other comes up with another set of figures — circulation (that is, newspaper buyers) or readership (who may or may not be buyers) — to beat the other with. Meanwhile, they could ponder the steps just taken by London’s leading daily: no more freebies and bulk sales giveaways and special offers that inflate figures because, “Figures should be real, not manipulated,” says the Daily Telegraph editor, Charles Moore.
Test of tolerance
No one deserved the first “Journalism for Tolerance Prize in South Asia” more than Muzamil Jaleel, Indian Express bureau chief in Srinagar. But even Muzamil’s tolerance must have been sorely tried at the award-giving ceremony in Delhi last week. To liven things up, the International Federation of Journalists announced a shortlist of three the day before the award function and declared the prize-winner’s name on D-day, à la the Oscars. Journalists were not impressed.