A class in ‘sensitivity’

Before our internship with a state edition of The Times of India, the Times group gave us – a bunch of around 20 aspiring journalists – six months of classroom training. Many senior TOI hands, including experienced reporters and editors, gave us lessons and tips. One class had a huge impact on me.

It was a class in ‘sensitivity’.

Our teacher (I don’t remember his name but he had retired from TOI as a crime reporting head) narrated to us a story which he asked us to reproduce as a print news report.

The story went like this: A 10-year-old girl in a village in Maharashtra delivered a child. She had had a bloating stomach for months, but no one in the family or village had really bothered. No one took her to a doctor or a hospital in her months of pregnancy. No one even thought it could be pregnancy. It was only when she complained of unbearable pain that she was taken to a doctor when, much to everyone’s surprise, she delivered a baby. Experts say she could be the youngest mother in the country.

The teacher gave us ten minutes and asked us to give a headline as well. The headline, we had learnt by then, carries the ‘peg’ of the story. He offered to provide more information about the case in case we needed it for our reports.

Some of us asked for details such as her name (which was denied, as she was a minor), her village’s name, her mother’s name, and a “quote” by a family member.

I was the first to hand over my written report. We were all done in ten minutes. The teacher read them all in the next few minutes. I thought he would praise me for writing it faster than everyone and with all the required details in place. My ‘what, why, where, when, how’ were all accurate, I was confident.

Instead, he called all of us ‘insensitive’. “Particularly you women,” he said.

My headline was – ‘10-year-old girl becomes the youngest mother in India’.

Other headlines were on the same line. ‘Maharashtra girl become youngest mother in India at 10’, said one. ‘10-year-old delivers baby, becomes youngest mother in India’, said another. Our “intros” too began with the information that the girl was possibly the youngest mother in India.

The teacher asked us if anyone of us knew how painful child delivery is, or if any of us imagined how tormenting it would have been for a child.

We were blank.

He asked us if a 10-year-old delivering a baby should be celebrated as a feat or, if we, even for a moment while writing the report, think of the girl at all.

We all sat in pin-drop silence.

I was ashamed. And choked. I had joined the Times’ journalism school with a singular aim of seeing my name printed in the TOI and flaunt it to be schoolmates and relatives. Until fifteen minutes ago, all I had cared for was getting the girl’s age and native place, and other details of the story, right.

For the first time, I thought about the girl. I imagined a little girl in a frock lying in bed, her eyes coldly staring at the ceiling, her shell-shocked mother around her, probably keeping the mediapersons at bay.

It wasn’t a picture of a happy child-birth at all. No, it was nothing like when my sister delivered a baby boy the previous year.

It was not just a lesson in ‘sensitivity’. For me, it was a lesson in how not to be a jerk.

After the class, I went to the teacher and asked him if he knew how the girl got pregnant and no one came to know about it. “It must have been rape. The girl was too young to understand anything,” he said as a matter-of-fact, as if it was obvious.

I was numb. If only I could sit beside the girl caressing her. If any villager dared to say anything against her or her family, I would slap that villager hard, I thought.

I was reminded of this class when I saw a recent tweet by well-known journalist Shekhar Gupta, in which he plugged a report on post-mortem details of Intelligence Bureau staffer Ankit Sharma was brutally murdered by a mob during Delhi riots in February.

“Post-mortem report shows IB staffer Ankit Sharma, killed in Delhi riots, was stabbed 12 times and not 400 times,” Gupta’s tweet said. The information in Gupta’s tweet fact-checks an earlier claim made by a journalist that Sharma was stabbed 400 times. The claim showed the attackers to be maniacal monsters.

Indeed, 12 stab wounds are not any less horrific. In any case, Sharma has died, and died a brutal death following torture. But facts are sacred, and the number of stab wounds, if cited, should be accurate.

Gupta’s tweet, in my opinion, was insensitive. How would Sharma’s family feel if they read it?

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