The death of Sushant Singh Rajput: How TV media missed the detail in their 'detailed' coverage
At the onset, let me confess that when I read the news of Sushant Singh Rajput's demise, my first reaction was, 'What! Why would he commit suicide? Wasn't he a well-established actor? What could possibly have been wrong in his life!?'. And I immediately snapped back at myself in my head with a tight mental slap saying, 'What the hell do you mean by that?'. I even went a step ahead and looked up his former manager's suicide case and thought, 'Could these 2 cases be related?'. Yeah. That's how flawed we are as a society. Even an aware person (self-acclaimed) like myself can forget about basic decency in loss of life when it comes to Bollywood gossip.
And that is exactly what TV news sells. And to expect the television media channels to snap back at themselves, find the fault lines and fix them in such cases is too much to ask for. The TV media that has been missing sensationalism for the past 3 months now suddenly found that opportunity here with actor Sushant Singh Rajput's suicide on a Sunday afternoon.
This is not the first time though, right? In the last 2 years at least, the demises that have shocked the film industry and the country as a whole have been Sridevi’s, Irrfan Khan’s, Rishi Kapoor’s, and now of Sushant Singh Rajput’s, who took his life at a young age of 34 years. However, in the case of Rishi Kapoor and Irrfan Khan the whole country mourned the loss of two legendary actors. But do we remember how the TV media covered Sridevi’s death?
I used to work at Times Now at the time and thankfully wasn't present that day in the newsroom. I received the flash late in the night in the official group and decided to switch off my reception for most of next day so that I could not be called in on my off day. But I witnessed the despicable speculations and conspiracy, criminal theories involving the actor’s family and husband first hand.
In the case of Sushant though, the death sparked a crucial discussion on mental health issues because the preliminary investigation into the case said that he had battled depression for the past couple of months and was taking antidepressants. The whole industry, the whole country expressed shock, his close ones expressed grief and mourned losing a young talent, a good human being, and others on social media and TV screens displayed despicable understanding of a situation like this.
The worst case scenario was that of Aaj Tak, ‘Sabse Tez’. They were so Tez that they didn’t pause and reflect on the loss of a human being, loss of a son, a brother to his family, and asked their reporter to enter the paternal house of the late actor in Patna, his hometown. The reporter Sujeet Jha entered the house, tried speaking to a man, presumably the actor’s uncle, who sat there consoling the distraught father and asked, ‘When was the last time you saw him and what do you think could have happened?’. This, in front of the father who is yet to believe that his son is no more. Then the reporter stood right in front of the father and narrated the whole incident again to the camera.
Add to it the star anchor of Aaj Tak - Ms. Chitra Tripathi, who during another broadcast asked another one of their reporters of the possible reason that could have led Sushant to take such a step saying, “other actors have said that he was always a cheerful person, didn’t have much financial strain and there was no dearth of work being offered to him. So if he was doing well in his career, what else could be the reason for his depression?”. To some relief, the reporter corrected her in saying that being financially stable, and having enough work cannot be the only reasons for someone’s mental peace and happiness. Chitra even asked her Patna correspondent whether he was able to speak with Sushant’s sisters, now that the father is inconsolable.
Hindi news channels also received flak for the editorial lines they used on their screens during the marathon coverage. While Aaj Tak wrote lines like, ‘Aise kaise ‘hit-wicket’ ho gaye Sushant?’ and ‘Tum jaise gaye aise bhi jata nahi koi’. Zee News had ‘Sushant ki khud-kushi par 7 sawaal’ asking ‘Patna ka Sushant Mumbai me fail kyu?’ ABP News reporter shoved her mic into the inconsolable sister’s face, whereas News Nation TV took the lead by broadcasting the last pictures of the actor, his cold body lying on bed. ANI was also among those who reached the Patna house and gave the inside pictures to news channels.
In this race of who does it better with graphics, pictures, and on ground reporting, these TV channels missed out on the very detail of this detailed broadcast- the issue of mental health. This was the time when the TV news could have used that clout in reaching out to the masses and tried to do away with the stigma attached to mental health, depression, anxiety. But the coverage only showed how ill-equipped these show anchors were on the basic understanding of illnesses like depression. First off, it is entirely wrong to say that someone has ‘committed’ suicide. The correct term to use here is ‘died by suicide’, like died of heart attack.
Anchors on primetime news instead, gave morale boosting sermons saying, ‘there is no problem so hopeless that one gives up their life’ or, ‘one should talk to their close ones when they feel low’. Instead, what should have been discussed was the need for communication and support of those close ones, to those who are suffering. The need was to educate on the fact that not everyone is privileged enough in life to have people around them to talk to, and that it is okay to not feel okay. The need was to tell people that suicide is not cowardly, but a result of some underlying mental issues that may not have been addressed. Also, that there is an urgent need to make mental health treatment available at low prices.
To just take care of the basics while covering a tragedy involving suicide or attempt to suicide, if editors and journalists followed just these guidelines by Centre for Mental Health Law and Policy, advocated by WHO and other international organisations, it would have been a big face saver.
Don’t promote suicide stories by placing them in the front pages of the newspaper or as a lead item for broadcast media.
Don’t give details about the method or location of any suicide death or attempt.
Suicide notes, text messages, social media posts, and emails of the deceased person and/or their family members should not be published.
Don’t speculate. Verify your facts from multiple sources when the reasons for a suicide death or attempt are not immediately clear.
Don’t reveal personal details about family members, the deceased person, or any person who has attempted suicide without their informed consent.
Don’t write of suicide deaths/attempts as horrific, unfortunate events. Open up your story by focusing on the celebrity’s life and their contribution to society.
Suicide is a largely preventable public health problem. There are several counselling services and helplines working across the country for this cause. Include these resources in your story/report.
Some on social media said that it is not fair to blame the TV media alone for the coverage they do; that they are the reflection of a morally dead society that enjoys such broadcasts. Agreed, we are a morally corrupt society that thought that it was okay to share in groups and on social media those last pictures of a cold dead body just because everything is readily available these days. But we must not forget the responsibility that the editors of these TRP-hungry news channels have towards a whole country. We as responsible citizens must not fall into this trap.
It is essential for people to understand that terms like Depression, Anxiety, OCD are serious mental health issues and must not be used loosely as they are in today’s time and age. Yes, these are issues that a major chunk of the population of the world are suffering from, but to say that you are depressed because you may not have spent your birthday the way you would have imagined, is not acceptable. It is sadness or disappointment, and not depression. Or to consider yourself a patient of OCD because you like being organised, is disrespecting the mental ordeal of those actually suffering from OCD. One must educate themselves on symptoms of anxiety, depression and be empathetic towards those suffering from it. Also, it is essential to understand that in case of depression, it is not acceptable to ask the victim of the reason behind what they are feeling. Depression doesn’t have a particular reason behind it. Sometimes, most times there are no reasons at all.
Also as responsible fellow human beings, it is essential to look after those who may be suffering around you. Help them with professional assistance, with suicide prevention helpline numbers like -
Telangana Roshni- 040-66202000
Andhra Pradesh 1Life- 78930-78930
Karnataka Arogya Sahayavani- 104
Tamil Nadu Sneha- 044-24640050
Delhi Sanjivani, Society for Mental Health- 011-40769002
Mumbai BMC Mental Health Helpline- 022-24131212
Vandrevala Foundation- 18602662345/ 18002333330
I Call- 022-25521111
The Samaritans, Mumbai- 8422984528/ 8422984529/ 8422984530
Sahai, Bengaluru- 080-25497777
Maitri, Kochi- 0484-2540530
Chaithram, Kochi- 0484-2361160
Lifeline Foundation, Kolkata- 033-24637401/32