It was an unmissable incident for Indian media when Bollywood superstar Sridevi Kapoor passed away in a hotel in Dubai this week. Still, the graphic and relentless news coverage has sparked outrage from several corners.
Thousands of fans poured into the Mumbai streets to pay final tributes to the Bollywood movie icon, known mostly by her first name Sridevi, who died of "accidental drowning" in a hotel bathtub. However, on the sidelines was the non-stop reportage which sometimes bordered on what one media critic called — "third-degree" journalism.
Elaborate onscreen graphics were put up and there were recreations of the hotel room scenes to illustrate Sridevi's death. Originally thought to have died due to cardiac arrest, the death took what half a dozen news outlets called a "mysterious" turn when it emerged the movie star passed away because of drowning.
It was an untimely and unexpected death of the 54-year-old actress, who had enthralled millions of movie audience in a career spanning more than three decades. But a series of inconsistent and uncertain sequence of events only helped the broadcasters to add speculative fuel to the coverage.
While one national television channel placed Sridevi's photograph above a bathtub carrying a text "the bathtub of death," a regional channel's reporter, in a live segment, tried to immerse himself in a bathtub as if to demonstrate how Sridevi could have died.
Adored by critics and audience alike, Sridevi had acted in more than 300 films in six languages. Bollywood celebrities, media critics and other members of civil society are in unison that a significant proportion of the rolling coverage was in bad taste.
Insensitive and shallow
At least a dozen scathing editorials and opinion pieces have been written in several Indian publications condemning the methods in which the death was reported to the audience. Almost all of them pointed out how the self-regulatory mechanism has so far failed and called for an increased editorial responsibility.
"What is surprising [in the Sridevi coverage] is the extent to which they can go in creating new kinds of storytelling that border on fiction, bad taste or the most important of all, going by hearsay and taking a stand without factual basis. That is the most disturbing," Madhavan Narayanan, veteran journalist and media critic, told DW.
"A lot of the coverage was pure conjecture without basis. You're passing off voyeurism as investigative journalism," he added.
When asked how news fraternity could be more regulated to refine the coverage, Narayanan responded: "There is something called decency and fair-play. India's News Broadcasters Association is also silent on the issue in spite of the controversies. At least I would have expected some kind of a joint press release or a meeting convened to address the matter."
"This basically means a government regulation is not possible and self-regulation is failing. So the responsibility of journalism has become a mere desirable ethical feature. The big question is whether there is a difference between freedom of press and irresponsibility or there is not even a blur anymore," he added.
Social media campaign
Scores of infuriated social users registered their protest in cyberspace with some peddling hashtags such as "Let her rest in peace" and "News ki Maut" (The death of news). Several people posted screenshots of the television reports which they found appalling.
At least one media organization tried to kick-start a campaign on Twitter exhorting users to speculate on the possible cause of Sridevi's death with the hashtag #SrideviDeathMystery. But this quickly backfired with the users heaping scorn on the news media.
Though the Dubai authorities have ruled out any foul play in the actress' death, a barrage of social media posts and memes were circulated filled with conspiracy theories, chiefly targeting Sridevi's husband, Boney Kapoor.
Nevertheless, some sections of news media that are at the receiving end of criticism shot back, defending their coverage by saying that rural audience required simplified reporting of events.