How to milk a suicide for all its worth

Why the media coverage following Pratyusha Banerjee’s death is simply deplorable

ByRajyasree Sen
How to milk a suicide for all its worth
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Every time a celebrity dies, especially if it’s a suicide, you know what to expect. Journalistic ethics will go out of the window with re-enactments, sensational headlines, images and so on. Yet, hope springs eternal and each time, I cling to the faith that next time around, the media will be slightly calmer and restrained in their coverage. Silly me. Because what has been passed off as reportage on some channels and websites since Saturday morning, has simply left me stunned.

On Friday evening, 24-year-old TV actress Pratyusha Banerjee was found hanging from the ceiling fan in her apartment, by her boyfriend and fellow actor Rahul Raj Singh. Banerjee is no unknown or struggling actress, but the former star of the highly popular serial Balika Vadhu. She was recently in a slew of reality shows. The death is under investigation because aside from the obvious fact of her suicide, Banerjee’s face reportedly had injury marks and her autopsy shows asphyxiation. Singh, after taking her body to the hospital, left and returned many hours later. Keeping in mind that this is yet another suicide of a successful actor and the boyfriend’s behaviour could easily be construed as suspicious, coverage on her death and alleged suicide is only expected.

Yet, it’s the way Banerjee’s suicide has been covered that makes you marvel at what conversations and decisions take place at the editorial meetings where media outlets decide what news reports will follow.

Most recently, Banerjee’s friends on Sunday morning made a statement saying that professionally and financially she was very stable. They believe that an investigation needs to take place as her relationship was upsetting her and she has unexplained injuries on her face and that the media needs to report on the matter responsibly and with respect.

Ironically, this report was on India Today TV, which according to me deserves the prize in the We’ve Spotted A TRP-Winning Story And Will Milk It For All It’s Worth category.

On Saturday evening, the channel telecast the message that a “massive debate” was erupting over Banerjee’s suicide. The star panel India Today TV had assembled was actress Digangana Suryavanshi and domestic violence expert-and-repeat wife beater, Rahul Mahajan. Here is an example of the insights Mahajan spouted: “Sometimes you can skip a meal, but you cannot skip a hug of love”. He also physically gestured what a hug looks like, in case watching the guests and discussions on the show had atrophied the audience’s brain.

The anchor, Sanket Upadhyay, made statements such as, “This is not the first case of a celebrity snuffing out his or her life a little too early in his or her career.” As if committing suicide after you’ve had a long career is okay. The discussion was pointless and I couldn’t understand how or why Mahajan should be asked for his views on anything in general and Banerjee’s death in particular, unless he was there in his capacity as a former domestic abuser who could explain if he thought she was a victim of domestic abuse.

At 11.30pm on Saturday night, India Today TV decided there were still more TRPs to be earned, so they had a half hour special (anchored by Upadhyay again), titled The End. The End was a video listicle of “five other actresses/models whose death left the world shocked”. It took us through the deaths of various models and actresses, and repeated allegations against their partners without regard for whether their partners had been absolved or acquitted of the charges or not. It did not tell us anything new about the investigation, just regurgitated rumours and details of other deaths.

It was almost like a spot of suicide entertainment for those of us watching late night news. Thank you, India Today TV.

Even this wasn’t enough. Their website has a slideshow of celebrities who went to the hospital with this headline: “Pratyusha Banerjee commits suicide: Dolly Bindra, Rakhi Sawant, Ratan Rajput spotted outside Kokilaben Hospital.”

The pictures of the “celebrities” were accompanied by captions that said her friends found her death “saddening”, or they were “shaken up” at the news. Very informative and relevant

It also had a listicle of Banerjee and other TV actresses who have killed themselves.

In case you think I’m picking on India Today TV, it’s not that other channels didn’t carry the news, but they did maintain some modicum of decency in their reportage, as far as I saw. Times Now maintained a calm demeanour – which is shocking in itself. There was a follow-up report after the first report announcing Banerjee’s death and body being discovered and a five-minute report with the headline, “Actor Pratyusha’s friends hint at foul play”. The report interviewed her neighbour, who had heard her crying on the same day, and her friends who feel that she couldn’t have committed suicide and questioned why her boyfriend had left her body at the hospital and gone away instead of staying there. There was no speculation or interviewing of random or unrelated people.

All the news reports were exactly that – “reports”. They weren’t commentary or conjecture. And honestly, if our answer to Fox News, Times Now can do it, why can’t other news channels? Also, it’s good to see that there’s at least some attempt to change reporting style, since the Times Now reporter is the same reporter who had broken into a Ben Johnson run after Rahul Mukerjea in the airport to get him to make a statement about Indrani Bora.

NDTV 24X7 tried to stick to its stance of being non-tabloid journalism with its reports as well. Although they did question Banerjee’s sister till she started crying, but stopped questioning her immediately. NDTV India tried to follow the same restraint as well, although their 9pm news began with a news report headlined – “Pratyusha ne kyun ki aatmahatya?” (Why did Pratyusha commit suicide?). However, they didn’t answer the question and had utterly maudlin opening and closing statements.

The award for the most voyeuristic and tasteless coverage though, goes to MissMalini.com for publishing a video of Banerjee’s dead body being taken to be cremated and commenting on what her body was dressed up in. Because fashion is very important to Miss Malini, even in death. They also shared their deepest condolences with the video – how sweet. After all, whatever gets your website hits.

It’s bad enough that a young woman has died under mysterious circumstances. And yes, the media needs to report on the details of the death and the ongoing investigation. But is it so difficult to get some perspective and exercise restraint while doing so?  Apparently it is, because coming a close second to MissMalini.com was ABP News, who decided their viewers needed “live coverage” of Banerjee’s body being taken from hospital to the cremation ground.

Maybe we should listen to what Banerjee’s friends said in their statement to the media. “We want to tell the media, please respect a girl who is no more. She has achieved things in life than we can achieve in a lifetime. Unke baare mein kuch bhi galat baatein na yakeen keejiye, na phelein.” (Please don’t believe incorrect information about her, or spread incorrect information.)

But don’t hold your breath for that to happen, because by 3pm on Sunday, News X had decided that 48 hours was enough time to have kept unsubstantiated reports at bay, and tweeted this Breaking News:

Maybe there is some truth to the fact that you can’t expect to teach old TRP-loving news channels, new tricks.

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