Death by Media Frenzy: How Irresponsible Journalism Led to a DU Professor’s Suicide
Investigative journalism cannot be a cloak for speculation, and the fourth estate cannot continue to publish ill-considered, badly researched, speculative reports at the cost of very real human lives.
The press is known as the fourth pillar of democracy with good reason - we are the gatekeepers of truth, transparency and trust for any state; we are both the watchdog and the mouthpiece of essential information. We hold incredible clout, and - at the risk of sounding grandiose - it is our presentation of any event that decides how it is received by the public.
On October 4, we heard one of the most salacious crime stories of the year. It was the day Jolly Joseph, a Kerala housewife who had allegedly killed six of her family members over 14 years, was arrested. Her case immediately captured the imagination of the masses.
What began as regional news from Kerala quickly snowballed into a dark story of a long undetected serial killer, who used cyanide to poison her victims and claim their money.
On October 19, 15 days after Jolly’s arrest, an ad-hoc Professor at St Stephen’s College, Alan Stanley, was found dead on the railway tracks at Sarai Rohilla in Delhi. His mother Lissy was found hanging from a ceiling fan in their Pitampura flat the same day.
Alan was just 27 years old.
They were both victims of a media trial, casualties of irresponsible journalism undertaken by the Malayalam news media.
In a nutshell, here’s what happened:
Alan Stanley’s father passed away while Alan was in his final year of college, in 2013. Subsequent to this, Alan encouraged his mother to remarry, despite opposition from his elder brother. Although Lissy’s elder son drifted away from her and Alan, she did proceed to get remarried, in 2016, to a man named K John Wilson.
In 2018, however, Wilson committed suicide. Wilson’s death brought about two allegations against Alan and Lissy: That they harassed him to the point of depression, and forced him to commit suicide; and that Lissy fraudulently forced Wilson to transfer over Rs 1.5 Crore to her account. Recently, a case was filed in Idukki against Alan and Lissy, by Wilson’s son, on the above grounds, under sections 305 (abetment of suicide of child or insane person) and 380 (theft in dwelling house, etc.) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) against the mother-son duo. Stanley and Lissy had since been out on anticipatory bail.
In the frenzy around the Jolly murders, the media began to draw similarities between Lissy and Jolly. In a news report published on October 15, there were implications made that Lissy's involvement in her husbands' deaths was similar to Jolly's.
This report was soon picked up by another online Malayalam news outlet, which further speculated about the possibilities of a parallel case.
A four-page suicide note found at Stanley’s apartment lists ‘mental tension’, ‘depression’, and ‘a misinformation campaign by a few media outlets’ as the reason behind the deaths.
As journalists, our biggest responsibility is to ensure the veracity of our reports. As the source of information dissemination to the masses, we have to be held to the highest standards of ethical reporting. Investigative journalism cannot be a cloak for speculation, and the fourth estate cannot continue to publish ill-considered, badly researched, speculative reports at the cost of very real human lives.
As consumers of sensationalised news, the audience are also complicit in the toxic news cycle. A story about a suicide is simply not as interesting as a mystery about a black widow serial killer, whose husbands drop like flies. These are the stories that sell - but again, we ask, at what cost?