Breaking the news in Mumbai – literally
The concept of a televised war was born in January 1991, when news networks reported live on the missiles slamming into Baghdad and millions watched from the comfort of their living rooms as tracer fire lit the sky above Iraq’s capital. A decade later, the world watched in minute-by-minute horror as the twin towers came crashing down in New York.
Now, with the ferocious militant attacks in Mumbai, we have arrived in “the age of celebrity terrorism“. Paul Cornish of Chatham House argues that apart from killing scores of people, what the Mumbai gunmen wanted was “an exaggerated and preferably extreme reaction on the part of governments, the media and public opinion”.
It’s too early to tell if governments will respond with extreme reaction, but the saturation coverage of the drama in the world’s media would suggest that, at least on this level, the killers were successful.
|[The Taj Mahal hotel is reflected on the window of a car of a television channel in Mumbai December 2, 2008. REUTERS/Arko Datta (INDIA)]|
“Almost within minutes, television screens showed harrowing scenes of pools of blood where people had died or been injured, hotels ablaze, Indian army snipers firing at distant targets, and CCTV images of the attackers,” Cornish writes.
The first reports of shooting in the streets of India’s financial capital did not actually come from the mainstream media. A BBC news technology blog suggested that the social networking site Twitter “came of age” during the attacks because it carried messages on the shootings some time before television networks and news agencies started reporting them. Indeed, according to a Reuters report, blogs fed an information frenzy on the 60-hour gun rampage and siege, underlining the emergence of citizen journalism in news coverage.
However, the live coverage that followed on television networks, particularly Indian ones, was shrill, sensationalist and bordering on the hysterical. As the Financial Times points out, this is not new in India’s competitive television market, where some channels flash the words “Breaking News” all day and “the only thing that matters is to be ‘first’, even if first is wrong”. The blizzard of reporting inaccuracies over this incident was astonishing. In a despatch on why we should take reports from the scene of a massacre with a grain of salt, Jack Shafer catalogues the instances from Mumbai of what he calls “crap masquerading as authoritative news”.
How does high-octane reportage like this feed into the popular mood, and how far could that influence the hands of policy makers in New Delhi and Islamabad?
To find out, watch for Breaking News.