Asela Kuruluwansha is used to seeing horrific footage on nightly newscasts aired over Sri Lankan TV channels. He is often left repulsed and makes sure that his young children are prevented from watching them. A difficult task given that the news in the local languages sometimes follows right after the cartoons finish.
But beyond shielding his kids, Asela, a senior journalist with the state-owned Dinamina, one of Sri Lanka’s largest circulation Sinhala daily newspapers, had not taken any other action.
Recently though he has been moved to take action over the reportage of suicide in local media. “It is not right, just because there is footage or intimate details, we should not go to press, there should be moral judgment over the news judgment,” Asela told Internews senior journalism trainer Amantha Perera last week.
Asela had been dismayed by the airing of graphic footage of a young man committing suicide by leaping onto an incoming truck on two Sri Lankan channels, Hiru and state owned Rupavahini on the evening of September 12.
Soon after he saw the footage he called Amantha and together they informed officials of the Information Department of the footage. The initial reaction was that the offending footage was removed from Hiru’s late night broadcast.
The next morning, to their dismay, Asela and Amantha found that the clip was not only available on the respective Facebook and Twitter feeds of the channels but was being promoted. In one instance, red circles were drawn on the image to clearly mark the point of impact – between the head and the rear wheel.
Again requests were made to relevant officials and the clips were removed.
Asela’s thinking on the issue did not evolve out of the blue – there was a process behind it. Asela has been a one of several dozen Sri Lankan journalists mentored under the Internews One Sri Lanka Programme and Fellowships.
The fellowships aim to encourage journalists to report on complex subjects like race, religion, post war reconstruction and reconciliation, human rights and even suicide under the guidance of a mentor with international and local experience. They also get the chance to attend workshops where such issues are discussed candidly.
Asela was part of one such workshop where the subject was reporting on suicide. A few weeks before that workshop, Asela had refused to write a story on the suicide of a young woman. The story had all the details of Bollywood melodrama – a young, beautiful woman commits suicide by leaping on to an incoming train after being ditched by her lover. Asela had more intimate details than others. But he refused to write the story despite the insistence of his superiors.
He did so because he felt, the suicide had no mass news appeal and to publicize the intimate details would be nothing less than violation of privacy.
“In Sri Lanka, media capacity building has become a lopsided endeavor,” Amantha noted. “What is carried out more often than not is decided by not what is needed here but what is deemed as needed. Much of it without any deep analysis of local circumstances.”
He continued, “So we have had countless programs on investigative journalism or on data journalism among others. These are needed, but what is lacking in Sri Lankan media is hands-on training on news judgment and reporting. Once that urgent need is met, then we can branch out to other issues. But if we do not reinforce the awareness on fundamentals of journalism, whatever we build on top of them will be standing on shaky ground.”
The Internews fellowships have given journalists the chance, not only to develop key journalism skills like new reporting, sourcing and use of data, and an emphasis on long term engagement, it has given trainers and strategists the chance to enter into a dialogue with the participants. That dialogue begins at workshops but fortunately does not end there.
It is such a dialogue that Amantha had with Asela on the reporting suicide. And it has had a big impact, not only on one of the senior regional journalists working in the vernacular but also within the community.
It is a dialogue that needs to continue, widen and diversify. And this is best accomplished by fostering long term engagement between working journalists and trainers.
Shifan Ahmed is Program Manager for Internews in Sri Lanka.
(Banner photo: Pettah, one of the oldest districts in Colombo, is a swirling center of commercial activity. Credit: Dan Lundberg/CC)