This fortnight’s column was to be a discussion of how Scroll has been covering the continuing protests in Kashmir. Then, on the morning of September 18, Uri happened. Print, broadcast and web media were filled with news and analysis of Uri and its aftermath.
As I write this, it has been barely 72 hours since the attack on the army camp that led to the killing of 18 jawans, taking India-Pakistan relations to the edge of a new precipice. In the era of the 24-hour news cycle, it is in the first 48-72 hours after such a horrific event that public opinion gets formed. Which is why the media has a special responsibility. It has to respond quickly, but it has to report factually and discuss in detailed and reasoned manner what may follow.
In my view, the media’s biggest responsibility at a time like this is to be careful not to whip up passions and pressure the government to act in dangerous directions.
So, how has Scroll done on Uri? I would say reasonably well in some respects, very well in others.
On the news side, within a couple of hours of the morning of September 18, the website had put together a story about the events, based on news agencies and TV channels. Over the next three days, the stories assembled under the byline ‘Scroll Staff’ have been up to date and have informed readers of all the news – what the government had been saying, the Army’s statements and, of course, what the political leadership felt the government should do. It would have been good if Scroll had been able to put out a news story with all the details of what happened and why at Uri in the early hours of September 18 like this one in Mail Today, which appeared a day later. But Scroll is not a "news" organisation and, as a relatively young and still growing publication, it does not have the resources to cover every beat in detail. So, the absence of an in-depth story on the event itself is not something for which it can be faulted.
It was, however, quick with its analysis. Within a few hours, on September 18, there was this news analysis of the possible extent of planning that went into the attack.
It is not just the speed of response that is important but also what is being reported and the quality of the analysis. This is where Scroll has taken a different path from most commentary in print, TV and digital publications. Where the overall tone – especially on TV – has been of sounding the drumbeats of war, this publication has attempted to offer reasoned analysis, counter rumours and point to the dangers of certain pathways of response.
For instance, on September 19, the day after Uri, in the short editorial comment on the Daily Fix/Big Story, it argued why restraint may not be a sign of weakness. Later the same day, there was this piece refuting rumours that the Pakistani defence minister had spoken about a nuclear war. On September 20, there was a useful quick analysis of what the Pakistan media was saying. (Somewhat surprisingly, there was no article analysing what the Indian media was saying.)
A notable piece was the article calling out social media for all the loose talk about a nuclear war. Political personalities, retired army men, commentators of all hues have been irresponsible in shouting about war and even uttering the ‘N’ word. This is not the first time and it will not be the last when people on both sides of the border are so casual about the dangers and horrors of nuclear war. This particular article – a rarity in the Indian media – rose to the occasion to remind us of what would happen if a nuclear war broke out.
As I write this, just 72 hours since the attack on the army camp, an interesting article that asks us to look beyond and interrogates our ‘outrage’ has just been posted, again quite different from much else in the media.
That said, there were a few gaps in Scroll’'s coverage. Other than one article that itself was of a certain genre and spoke of special forces, there was no careful elaborating of the different options available to the government of India, and the costs and benefits of each. There may not be many commentators who can do that kind of analysis but I missed some of Scroll's regular contributors who in the past have offered such analysis. But again, there are far too few such writers and the publications seeking them are many.
Also missing were related stories. What settings and backgrounds did the jawans who died come from? Who were these soldiers who actually gave their lives? And, what will Uri do to the protest movement in Kashmir? What are the protestors thinking now?
So, while it may be that Scroll could have done more, it has stood apart for what it has done. It has refused to join the herd and has instead tried to be a voice of sanity.
In the past month, Facebook has been hauled over the coals for its initial decision to censor reproduction of the haunting photo of then nine-year-old Kim Phuc running naked after suffering burn injuries in a napalm bombing during the Vietnam War in 1972. Scroll put out at least three stories on the subject of censorship by Facebook. The first reproduced a photo of the front page of the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten, which brought this censorship to light; that image contained the photograph censored by Facebook in full. Then, on the September 11 Daily Fix page of Scroll, a link was provided to an article by Erna Solberg, the prime minister of Norway, which again contained the photo in full.
The image that initially went on the Daily Fix page, however, had text and a photo of Solberg covering the lower half of Kim Phuc’s body.
This led a reader, Prashanth, a student of law from Delhi, to write and ask how Scroll’s "censorship" was different from Facebook's. I see no censorship. As I have written, Scroll had already published the photo in full via the article from the Norwegian newspaper. I asked Sundeep Dougal, Scroll's managing editor, about this, who told me that the superimposition on the photo carried on September 11 was done only to visually differentiate the story from the many that were appearing at the same time. When Prashanth wrote in, the editors realised that their decision could be misinterpreted, and the superimposition was immediately modified.
Office of the Ombud
On a different note, after my first column, where I wrote wishing that there was a gender neutral term for "ombudsman", Akhila Ramnarayan wrote to Scroll saying there was one such word – ombud – and pointed us to the University of Washington’s home page, to the Office of the Ombud. Indeed, a quick check showed me that a number of universities in the United States do have an ombud, so do some universities in South Africa. But this seems not to be a word in itself but a short form of what in English is the awkward sounding ombudsman, which has actually been lifted in full from the Swedish language. The Oxford English Dictionary does not contain an entry for ombud, not even as a short form. No matter. I hope the term ombud spreads in usage. It serves the purpose and is easier on the English-speaking tongue.
Readers are bound to have their views on these issues and many other aspects of Scroll. They are welcome to write to email@example.com.