Mohan Guruswamy: Why we can’t rely on the media

Each person’s perception of an event is unique, which explains why journalists can have differing memories of the same event. When there are so many versions, can we ever know the essential truth?

Photo by Vipin Kumar/Hindustan Times via Getty Images
Photo by Vipin Kumar/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

Mohan Guruswamy

People commonly perceive the same event differently. It is written: "The brain does not record reality like a camera; it constructs a representation of reality through analysis and synthesis of sensory information. Therefore, each person’s perception of any given event will be unique, which explains why people can have such differing memories of the same event.

Even if the same sensory information is available to two different people, the unique history of each person’s brain will ensure that the final perception of each individual will differ, coloured by variations in the individuals’ attention, memories, emotional state, etc. Moreover, the exact sensory information in any given event will never be identical for any two people because the position in space of each person’s body will necessarily differ. All these factors will continue to colour the memory of the event at later times. This is well understood in legal contexts and is the reason that eye witness testimony can be highly problematic."

The great Akira Kurasawa film classic Rashomon deals with this phenomenon. In the movie, a woman is raped in a forest by a bandit, and her samurai husband murdered. In court, the victim and her attacker give very contradictory accounts of what happened, while the dead man, communicating through a medium, offers another very different interpretation. Finally, a woodcutter who claims to have witnessed the attack gives a fourth account. But whose version can be believed?

Now see how the same event—the gruesome hacking to death of a student in Hyderabad on Monday, March 12—was reported in the three English top dailies from Hyderabad. The only thing the three stories had in common were the names of the victim—E Sudheer—and the ACP who obviously briefed the media—Bhujanga Rao. From the reports, it doesn’t seem that Bhujanga Rao briefed the media simultaneously, and the story changed in every retelling. Or, did the reporters have their own perceptions of what he was saying? The reporters got the time of the murder differently and, more importantly, how the murder happened.

1. The Deccan Chronicle reported: "A 19-year-old Inter-mediate student was hacked to death in broad daylight, in Kukatpally, on Monday. He was on his way to his examination centre when he was chased and murdered. The incident occurred close to the ACP’s office in Kukatpally.

E. Sudheer, the victim, was a resident of Moosapet. He was on a bike, along with two of his friends, when he was attacked by a group of four persons near the JSP Honda showroom at around 8 am.

“He succumbed to his injuries and died on the spot. The suspects fled after the incident,” said Bhujanga Rao, the Assistant Commissioner of Police of Kukatpally. He added that the motive behind the murder was not yet known."

2. The Hindu reported: "Sudheer Erragalla was earlier riding pillion on a bike, on his way to appear for an intermediate examination, when four assailants intercepted the bike. To escape from the clutches of the gang, the victim jumped into a moving school bus. His attackers ran after the bus and caught hold of him.

The gang inflicted a deep cut on 18-year-old Sudheer’s scalp after attacking him with machetes and other sharp weapons, killing him on the spot, said Kukatpally Assistant Commissioner N. Bhujanga Rao.

He was chased for almost 120 meters on the road, police said. According to police, the victim was riding a bike with his friends Meghanath and Sai Krishna, before Sudheer was chased and murdered on the road.

The incident took place around 8.20 a.m., police said. Sudheer is a resident of Janata Nagar in Moosapet."

3. The Times of India reported: "At 8.30am, E Sudheer, an Intermediate II year student of Pratibha Junior College at Kukatpally, was hacked to death by four youngsters from Moosapet when he was on the way to Sri Chaitanya Junior College, Kukatpally.

Sudheer started from his home at Janatanagar in Moosapet on a bike with two of his friends, Meghnath and Sai Krishna. Meghnath was riding the bike, while Sudheer sat in the middle. When they reached Sagar Hotel near Kukatpally traffic police station on the highway, four persons, who came on two wheelers, intercepted the bike and pulled Sudheer off the vehicle.

As the assailants started attacking him with hunting sickles, Sudheer tried to cross the road by jumping across the median. However, the assailants pulled him back and hacked him to death, ACP, Kukatpally, N Bhujanga Rao said."

The Deccan Chronicle played safe and just reported the bald facts—who, what, where, when, why and how—as it saw it. The Hindu had the victim pulled out of a moving bus after the murderers chased it for 120 meters and hacked him. The Times of India had the victim caught as he was trying to jump a road divider to escape, and then hacked. The DC records the time of event as "around 8 am." The Hindu records it as at 8.20 am. The TOI records it as at 8.30 am.

Philip Graham, publisher of The Washington Post, described journalism as the "first rough draft of history." When there is so much of history to sift from, can we ever know the essential truth?

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