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 Global Perspective

October 8, 2003
Vol. 1, No. 28

Virginia Saldanha
Virginia Saldanha is a woman activist working in India for the empowerment of women through Church institutions as well as networking with secular organizations in the struggle for justice and peace.



Instead of sensationalizing, the newspapers drew the attention of people toward something positive -- help to the victims, especially the most vulnerable.

The Mumbai Bomb blasts -- a different face

By Virginia Saldanha

MUMBAI, India -- The news of bomb blasts in Mumbai would seem to have become routine. People are no longer shocked. For one day, people talk about it, and then it is forgotten. They feel sad for the victims and their families, and then they, too, are forgotten. People in a city like Mumbai have more consuming concerns like struggling to earn a living.

But the bomb blasts of Aug. 25 were different (See Global Perspective Aug. 27, The Mumbai bomb blasts and the Ayodhya tangle). Two blasts that were timed to go off simultaneously were reminiscent of the serial blasts of March 12, 1993, when several blasts rocked different parts of the city, killing hundreds and injuring many more. People were prone to panic.

On Aug. 25, I heard the breaking news of the blasts at about 1:30 p.m. when I sat down to lunch. I immediately switched to local channels, hoping to get more details, but was surprised to find that they went on with their usual programs. I had just returned from the United States, where I had witnessed the news spectacle of the electricity failure on the East Coast. There, every channel aired that news. People were interviewed and there were lots of stories of how people were affected. I expected the same after two bomb blasts in my city. Similar coverage would certainly interest the public. So I switched to other cable news channels and there I discovered the rumor machine in motion. They spoke of four blasts, but news of the location of the third and fourth blasts seemed to vary. This news was enough to send people into a panic. I kept switching between news channels and finally heard an interview with a police commissioner, who confirmed only two blasts.

The entertainment news channels succumbed easily to airing rumors because sensationalism sells. But our local news channels spoke about the tragedy only during the scheduled news time slots and continued with their usual programs. It was a strategy that kept the panic under control. I appreciated the value of such a strategy.

The next morning, the newspapers carried the factual report of the two blasts. At the Gateway of India, most of those killed were poor people who earned their living catering to the Indian tourists. At the gold market, most of those killed were, again, ordinary people who happened to be on the street at that time. The papers highlighted the story of five orphaned children whose parents perished before their very eyes. They also spoke of how people, irrespective of religious affiliation, came forward to donate blood for victims. These stories touched a chord in the hearts of Mumbaites. The following day, the paper reported a flood of calls to the newspaper office offering various forms of help to the victims. The newspaper decided to set up a fund to help the victims of the blasts. The response from the public was heartwarming. The newspaper published the offers of help and asked NGOs for assistance to organize them to reach the victims effectively.

I was impressed with the role the newspaper was playing in shifting the focus of civil society with regard to the tragedy. Instead of sensationalizing the incident by focusing on the raw emotions of people, they drew the attention of people toward something positive -- help to the victims, especially the most vulnerable.

When news of a tragedy like a train accident, murder, rape, or a single bomb blast (like the ones that have plagued Mumbai in the recent past) comes out, the majority thank God it wasn't them or their dear ones, and get on with life. Only a few ask questions. The newspapers, however, can play a key role in helping to bring out the best in people by highlighting aspects that can help to set in motion a chain of positive responses.

I recall an incident that happened some years ago. A young woman was assaulted by a man in the early hours of the morning on a local train in Mumbai. She resisted him trying to steal her handbag and he pushed her off the running train. She lost both her legs when a train coming in the opposite direction ran over her. The newspaper brought her plight to the attention of the Mumbai public. They immediately responded to her need for medical attention and rehabilitation. The public was kept informed about her progress, and she received a lot of encouragement and support through the columns of the paper until she was finally able to get back to normal daily life.

Sensationalizing tragedy is very easy. Like the appeal of "reality" television, such reports do attract people's attention and emotions, but the subtle negative effects can lead to speculation and fears that are undesirable in such situations. They do more harm than good.

Mainline newspapers like the ones in Mumbai can help to play an important role in managing people's emotions and controlling mass hysteria when tragedy or calamity strikes. By channeling people's emotions into constructive actions that comfort victims, they can help to bring healing to the victims and wholeness to civil society.

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