Sunday, August 26, 2012

Fat chance of success

If I go under the scalpel, I will get employed/ promoted. That is what many would be prompted to think when they read the latest piece of health news that appeared last week. Relating cosmetic and other physique improving surgery to better employment prospects looks more like a gimmick to attract readers than to responsibly report a trend.

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Health , a supplement of The Week magazine, carried a cover story on surgical makeovers and how they had boosted the careers of every person they interviewed. The piece interviewed professionals of all types – pilot, airhostess, lawyer, software engineer, businesswoman, and salesman - to capture the trend of people opting for all varieties of surgeries, even if they were not part of glamour driven industries. Some of the treatments mentioned include physique contouring, cosmetic surgery to alter facial features, breast and arms reduction surgery, gynaecomastia, high definition body sculpting for six-pack abs, rhinoplasty, liposuction, smile makeover, and teeth bleaching.

All those interviewed said the surgery boosted their careers. Really? How do we know for sure that the only reason they got a job or did better was solely because of their new look? What about other skills that are part of one’s job such as technical skills, good communication and general performance at work? None of this was discussed in the piece.

A plastic surgeon at a popular Delhi-based hospital was quoted saying that 60 percent of his patients underwent surgical procedures to improve their job prospects. To balance this opinion, the piece quoted just one cosmetic surgeon as saying there was no correlation between surgery and better job prospects. He added that surgery of any kind was risky and unless a medical condition warranted, one should stay away from such procedures. There was no information provided on what exactly happens as part of these surgeries, side effects and whether the results are permanent over a person’s lifetime.

What are readers more likely to believe? Reams of anecdotal evidence supplied by the people interviewed or two conflicting perspectives offered by specialists?

The media often highlights that only around 40 percent of our graduates and 25 percent of our post graduates are employable. Will they all get jobs, if they just look good?

The second piece published by the magazine in the same issue is more direct in its intention - to cause fear, anxiety, and depression among those seeking jobs or raises or promotions. Titled ‘Thin chance for the fat’, it briefly chronicles the experiences of four individuals who claimed to have lost jobs because they were obese. The piece quotes the CEO of a head hunting firm as saying “If you are obese, chances of getting a job of your choice is almost 100 per cent gone now as most companies don't recruit you instantly. Further, even if you are employed, in 50-60 per cent cases, the appraisals thereafter are not as good as the regular weight candidates'.” No clear evidence of such a case is presented in the entire story. This recruiter does not say if his clients specifically ask him to provide candidates who are not obese. Also no corporate view has been sought on this issue. The supporting research quoted by this piece does not have any figures pertaining to India.

While being obese is certainly not healthy, no where does the story attempt to realistically state what obese individuals cannot do that people of normal weight can. For example, are obese individuals slower in completing certain tasks? Or can normal weight people multi-task faster? What about those who are genetically predisposed to being large or are big boned? Many doctors agree that calculating the body mass index (BMI), a commonly used method to determine if one is obese, is not the most accurate method to determine fitness and health. How then can we determine one’s health?

Is this reflective of the employers’ bias towards those who are generally better looking, glib talkers and better networked? Indian society has been prejudiced and has discriminated against people based on their looks, caste, regional affinity and everything else apart from factors that really matter - talent, knowledge and ability to perform on the job. Thanks to such news, one can now rationalize discrimination and have employers justifying that they hired the average weight person because such a person would put less strain on the employee health insurance scheme, take up less space in the office elevator and eat less food at the cafeteria. After all these are business costs and a company has a right to limit its costs.

Strangely no piece talks about how corporates are largely to blame for the sedentary life style and lack of work-life balance that results in health issues. Most don’t encourage employees to take vacations or go home on time. Instead, the story highlights aspects like rise in corporate memberships at gyms for employees to get healthy. Is that the only way to lose weight? What about alternative forms of exercise such as yoga, jogging or free running? There is no mention of diet and nutrition either.

Other types of discrimination is also possible, if one were to read news reports of the rising number of eye lid surgeries performed in the North East so patients can look as “Aryan” as the rest of Indians. The story says children as young as 15 years are undergoing such surgeries to have a chance at a “normal college life” so they will not be addressed by derogatory terms like “chinki.” Nowhere does it talk about the dangers of such surgery or whether such an operation was sufficient to mask one’s identity. Those from the North East are recognizable also by their slim physiques, good fashion sense, polite manners and impeccable English. Will these not give- away their identities?

This issue is explored in an article by The Times of India where doctors urge patients to undergo counseling as part of planning for a cosmetic surgery procedure. The article quotes a plastic surgeon saying “People who want plastic surgery often blame their features for functional inadequacies, like a salesman claiming that his crooked nose affects his performance at work.” Such articles presenting the other side of surgeries, however, are far and few in the Indian media.

Trend reporting is much more than just talking about success stories. Reporters should strive to look deeper into the issues they are covering to see the bigger story. In my opinion, the bigger story here is not of the search for perfection by individuals but of the very real possibilities of using this perfection a tool to discriminate. Those without the means (or inclination) to afford such surgeries will stand to lose in this unfair battle. And the media would have a hand in promoting such a surgery driven lifestyle.

(I wrote this piece originally for The Hoot. You can read it here)

Monday, August 20, 2012

Media shuns responsibile reporting in NE exodus

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By harping on rumours, the media’s coverage of the recent exodus of people of North East Indian origin shows it had little intention to seek the truth.

For the last few days visuals of hordes of North Easterners jostling each other to get into trains at the Bangalore railway station have been repeatedly aired on several news channels. Last evening this story was catapulted to becoming national news and all news channels continued to show similar footage through the night extending into Friday morning. Words like rumour, danger, panic, attacks and uncertainty (and equivalents of these in every regional language) were used by reporters, anchors as well as tickers running on air. To someone who just tuned in to watch news, it would seem like the communities fleeing had been attacked by violent mobs and were running to save their lives.

This is just one example of the skewed coverage around this developing story. Subsequent TV news reports showed politicians assuring people of their safety, even as anchors and reporters continued to toe the “rumour” and “danger” lines, almost as if they wanted to maintain that the media’s stand on the issue was somehow different from the Ministers’. Zee News carefully clipped parts of certain speeches and chose to the keep the spotlight on its reporter who repeated the words “rumour” (Ahfaayein in Hindi), even as the screen juxta-positioned a stampede like situation at a train station.

Was such importance given to rumours because the media showed no intention to go looking for the truth?

NDTV at the end of its reports put out an appeal for calm, positioning it as ‘their view’ of the situation. In the appeal they blamed ‘extremists’ for fanning the fire of hatred. This is a speculation and contradicts their reportage which did not mention any source for these rumours apart from hearsay from fellow North Easterners. The word extremist in recent times has been associated with Muslims. Using such language is irresponsible, particularly when several Muslim leaders came out to extend their support towards the safety and security of North Easterners. Is the channel trying to rubbish this support?

CNN-IBN at the end of its reportage put out a set of questions. They included aspects on how to quell fear among the fleeing people, role of community leaders in doing this and whether mischief-makers were giving this situation a communal color. One would think these questions were relevant for the channel’s reporters to pursue and report about, but unfortunately these questions ended up as mere thoughts for the public to dwell on.

A Times NOW debate had Arnab Goswami questioning a panel on why there was no action taken against rumour-mongerers. Perhaps someone should have told him that no one has yet been identified as the source of starting these rumours. Asking endangered parties to stop warning their brethren about imminent danger (as communicated by the media), is not going to work. Ironically the debate was titled ‘Stop the rumour mongering’.

If the TV coverage fuelled panic, the print media decided to exercise restraint to the point that they barely scratched the surface of the tension brewing in the city.

The Hindu identified some instances of assault on North Easterners in some parts of Bangalore and provided an opportunity for the affected youth and the Karnataka Law Minister to interact. While the Minister urged the youth to file complaints, the youth refused saying they would not get any security upon filing complaints. This is representative of the perspectives held by the North Easterners. Instead of asking the Minister and perhaps the Police officials on how they attempted to tackle this notion and provide security, the paper chose to drop the issue. Was this just an attempt to expose yet another weakness of our law and order system?

The Hindustan Time detailed the measures that the Karnataka police intended to take such as intensified patrolling of areas populated by North Easterners and continuous interaction with them to get any leads for the future. However, it underscored the point that the Police would not act until someone filed a case of assault. To make this point clear, the report quotes the nodal officer appointed by the Karnataka police as saying no police intelligence was found on any attacks. Shouldn’t stray attacks, such as the one mentioned above, be considered by the police to initiate some kind of internal action so that such incidents don’t balloon into tragedies?

The Economic Times added a spare line in its report on the possible source of these fear-inducing SMSes, saying there could be multiple parties involved in creating this tensed atmosphere. However, no information on whether such SMSes were fake or real was revealed. This is crucial information. It should be noted that past bomb attacks in cities like Pune, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Mumbai and Delhi in India too resulted from SMSes and other clues from seemingly different groups with no common connect or motives. Post the bomb blasts, it was discovered that one or two groups claimed responsibility for the attacks. This could have spurred the Home Ministry to issue a ban on SMSes and MMSes later on Friday.

The Times of India in its brief editorial asked the police to act against those spreading rumours. Strangely, editorial read more like an appeal and seemed to indicate that the paper was clueless about what was happening. Surprisingly a blog by one the paper’s senior editors looks at the situation more meaningfully. She talks about ToI field reporters being aware of cases of random harassment against against North Easterners. “….being slapped, beaten up, verbal abuse, strangers barging into their homes and asking them to get out; landlords, fearing trouble, asking them to vacate their PGs etc…” the blog also mentions how the stabbing of a Tibetean student near Mysore was hushed up as a case of mistaken identity by the police. Such perspective, if carried by the main paper, could have helped readers.

Many reports such as those by The Hindu, The Deccan Chronicle, Rediff and The Hindustan Times mentioned the government’s intention to monitor social media sites to prevent any rumours from spreading through them. However, no reports clarified the action taken on prior allegations of social media being responsible for creating the current situation. Some such inflammatory videos continue to remain on YouTube such as this one by Al Jazeera titled Bodo Ethnic Cleansing in Assam that show people running helter skleter even as a burning tyre is hurled at them.

Considering the recent stand- off between the government and social media entities like Google, LinkedIn and others, over the issue of social media censorship, what can the government realistically do about such situations? Also how will they distinguish between fabricated and real life videos given the limited time to act?

A report by the First post indicated that rightwing supporters such as Tajinder Bagga and other were using social media to extend their support to the North East community in Bangalore – at the cost of sending inflammatory tweets such as “Fatwa issued by Local Muslims to North East Brother’s & Sister’s to leave Bangalore till 20 or ready for Riots”. How will the government deal with such people?

Also, it is common knowledge that the sheer size and scale of social media make it impossible for anyone to monitor. What specific steps would the government take in trying to accomplish this vigil? No details were provided.

By and large the media’s coverage of this issue has been very basic with various media establishments choosing to play safe. While it is commendable to disseminate timely information, reporters should also embark on fact finding to tie up the loose ends in their reports and provide more meaningful perspectives- something the bloggers seems to be doing a tad bit better.

(I wrote this piece for The Hoot. You can read it here also).

Friday, August 3, 2012

Power failure leads to reporting failure

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The sheer scale of the power failure in North India that extended to 20 states by Tuesday evening led to tons of news reports on the issue. Unfortunately, most of this coverage, while talking about macro issues in the sector, did not attempt to seek basic answers that the readers wanted at the time of the power failure – What caused this power failure? Who is responsible? What is being done to restore normalcy? Will we see more of this?

No English media editorial focused on this issue directly. Instead editorials galore talking about the need for grid discipline, strict penalty for non-compliance, power sector woes, need for a power sector watchdog and better infrastructure, who will bell the offending parties and how the grid survived for this long.

Now that power has been restored to most parts of North, East and North-East India, the media may perhaps think it is not relevant any more to dwell on these aspects. Nevertheless, it was a gaping hole, as readers missed some key answers.

1. The cause for the grid failure went unreported – Reports were at best speculative on why the power broke down. The Hindu promptly put out the news of the power blackout and conveniently mentioned that the then Power Minister Mr. Shinde did not want to comment on this issue. Many reports plugged in industry agenda about the “need for power reforms in the country.” A BBC report was the first to say that states could be drawing more power than usual from the grid. By Wednesday, while most papers seemed to agree that some form of over drawing resulted in the breakdown, a CNNI-IBN report said the Eastern grid was perhaps responsible for the breakdown, contradicting the assumption that the Northern grid was responsible for this situation.

A piece in the Economic Times attempted to provide some clarity by discussing what causes grid failure but went unnoticed due its poor placement in an obscure corner of the newspaper.

Experts, instead of explaining what could have cause power failure, were busy pushing the larger agenda of power sector reforms. A report in the Economic Times compiled the statements of various industry experts – most of them speaking about how states were getting greedy for more power and unwilling to pay the price for it.

The English news channels went on an over drive and the various panelists called on the shows to give their opinion seemed to have not gathered any facts on the case. “An accident,” “lack of grid discipline”, “the grid itself is technically unsound”,”over drawing of power” and ironically “not over drawing of power”, “excessive generation of power”, “negligence and oversight” and “gross mismanagement” were all given as reasons for the grid failure.

Is it not possible to look at electricity meters, gauges and other records of various power stations to figure out if over drawing was happening, as well as details pertaining to who was drawing more power and from which grid? While it is palpable that the culprits do not want to own up, why did the media have to shelter them by not asking this simple yet hard hitting question?

Times NOW on Tuesday night managed to get some figures indicating that Haryana withdrew 51% over the allocated quota just minutes before the grid failure. When confronted, the panelist representing the state, admitted to it thereby promptly ending the discussion. What was the objective of such a question, if there were no follow up questions? Other TV channels took this opportunity to host a name-calling slugfest where panelists openly blamed certain political parties and states for violating power withdrawing norms.

2. The corrective action taken by the Ministry to restore power was not reported – While print media reports eventually mentioned power being restored across most parts of the country, they did not mention how this was done or for how long such measures would hold.

Both questions are significant given the poor state of power sector infrastructure in the country, as was highlighted by almost all media reports subsequently. Except for a few reports on Wednesday morning, the media did not attempt to explain how hydel power was being used temporarily to kick start power in the grids. One report from the Economic Times mentioned hydel power from the Bhakra Nangal Dam project being used to restore power in Delhi, and another conflicting report from the Outlook mentioned Delhi being powered by hydel power from Bhutan via the Eastern grid.

Such conflicting coverage was seen throughout the two days the power failure existed on various aspects. One such instance was when NDTV 24/7 and Times NOW indicated that 35 – 75% of Delhi had its power restored by 9 pm on Tuesday whereas CNN-IBN rejected this claim and urged viewers to not rely on any such statements.

The net result of such coverage was that the readers/viewers was unclear if and when power would be restored and many vox-populi segments on TV said so.

3. No clarity on electricity consumption figures – This piece of information is vital to understand what could have caused a high demand for power on Monday. After all power grids don’t fail because of a marginal increase in power. Given the facts that some states constantly borrow power from other regional/state grids, only a substantially high power requirement could have resulted in power failure. This CNN-IBN report mentions that 3,000 Mega Watt (MW) was over drawn from the eastern grid, while the same report says that Delhi had a requirement of 4000MW on Monday when the power failed. Can the reader assume that the average daily power requirement in Delhi is typically only 1,000 MW then? Perhaps not, if one saw a Times of India report that mentioned power consumption in Delhi in peak summer to be 5,000 MW.

Further, the CNN IBN report mentions the average over drawing of electricity by various states. These numbers are suddenly mentioned not in MW but in “units”.

The next day, the Times of India gave a graphical interpretation of the situation indicating what was the average traffic on these grids on normal days versus on the day of the outage. Surprisingly, the traffic at the time of the trip across all the three grids was below the average withdrawl limits by these grids. How then could the grids trip? No explanation was provided.

Panelists on various TV new shows took the opportunity to throw more figures at viewers – 3 Lakh MW (the power shortage in the country), 50 Paise per unit (Proposed price of electricity in the 1994 sector reform Bill), Rs 2 Lakh crore (the deficit in various state power distribution companies), 10-15% (growth in power generation) and various grid frequency related figures.

What do these numbers mean to the average reader? Did they indicate that power restoration would at best be temporary?

The three aspects discussed above highlight that three of the “5Ws and 1H,” which form the basis of a news report, are missing – Who (who is responsible for the grid failure), Why (why did the failure occur) and How (how did the power failure spread). These questions remain unaddressed, although media outlets may see no point in revisiting them, given the power restoration.

Perhaps the government’s swift action to replace Mr. Shinde with Dr. Veerappa Moily, ensured that the media had a bigger (and more important) issue to report than just the power outage. The net result was that most reports on Tuesday evening were focused on 3 issues – Was Mr. Shinde capable of handling the Home Ministry?; Was the power crisis a reflection of a governance crisis?; and whether the Moily-led government would seriously take up power sector reforms.

On Wednesday all media outlets seem to have revisited their archives and mentioned the larger issues in the power sector and the need for power sector reforms. While it is commendable to look at broader issues and implications of the power failure, fundamental questions cannot go unaddressed.

(This piece was published in the The Hoot. You can read it here as well and share your comments.)