Toss and Talk 1: Oversimplification or Sensationalisation? Questions we have about the media coverage of Monika Ghudre’s murder and also a Hijabi ballerina

Monika Ghurude (left), the attack on Gigi Hadid (centre) & the hijabi ballerina (right).

Toss and talk is a slumber party game where a group of people toss around a bunch of questions and everyone has to speak their minds on the subject truthfully. This is a first of many discussion sessions, in which Pyjama People discusses topics and trends that have caught ours and your attention. This week, we’re discussing media standardised dialogues for women.

Ladies have been in the news, for good and bad reasons, more than ever before. Almost all the stories we are discussing below have made each of us uncomfortable in a variety of individual ways. We sat down to toss around our thoughts and see if talking about them could help us learn something from one another.

We took three case studies to discuss where the news coverage and audience response has been massive. The coverage of murder of perfumer Monika Ghundre, Gigi Hadid’s assault and the media response to it, a 14-year-old ballerina who went viral when Huff Post seemed her a beautiful First Muslim Hijabi Ballerina, and Kim Kardashian who was held hostage and robbed at her apartment in Paris.

This discussion started the conversation with a story about the World’s First Muslim Hijabi Ballerina shared by Huffington Post. Many of our readers liked it, many found it inspiring.

We did as well, but after Avantika and a friend and Pyjama contributor Revati Laul discussed the content of the story itself, and she couldn’t help but ask:

Avantika: This piece has me all kinds of confused. Why didn’t the reporter ask her why she HAD to wear her hijab? What is the great significance that the hijab holds for her that she couldn’t remove it to follow a passion she wanted to follow so badly? In some forms of Islam, dancing itself is haraam so was she already fighting that and didn’t want to take it any further? I don’t know because no one asked.

Janani: I see where you’re coming from as a reporter yourself. I had to read two or three times to even see a story.

Avantika: That’s fair. I feel the same. Like, why is the hijab important to her? What does it mean to her? Isn’t dancing haraam in some Islamic sects as well? Does she belong to one of those as well? What’s her family make of all this– the article doesn’t even speak to neighbours, no dance teachers, or the schools that rejected her, nor her friends. It doesn’t even check comments on her Facebook page. Creepy as it sounds, that’s in ass-in-chair journalism. Even I found a quote from Telegraph where she vaguely says her religion and hijab are rated for her, from a quick Google search.

Janani: Now that you mention it I think the reporter didn’t delve into what Islam meant for her and her family. It’s likely more than the hijab but we’re not hearing about the praying, eating halal meat, and other aspects of their lives. They lightly touch on that – saying people look at her with judgement but it doesn’t touch the controversy of it being harassed. It’s also probably in the headlines in this form because of the recent bans on burkas and Burkinis – so will be easier to grab eyeballs this way.

Vishakha: Also, I think the point could be to normalise it.

Pakhi: I don’t know whether it’s okay to be selective while conveying a story to put an idea across. But, given the negative shallow views on Islam and burqa/hijab, maybe the writer chose to ignore certain aspects of the story and simplified it just to prove a point?

Avantika: That’s why I ask: why are we not questioning this oversimplification? Does it have to be a choice between getting a point across to prove a point and simplification? Why are we willing to overlook this aspect of media coverage of women?

Vishakha: It’s not like people miss the point on purpose, it’s unconsciously accepted because we don’t recognise how much patriarchy exists in our society, or because we are too busy with our lives, which is fine too by the way. But, what about our own responsibility as a people to point these things out?

Pakhi: Also simplifying the story as Huff Post did, in reference to the depth the writer went into or didn’t in order for it to be an easy read article for everybody. Our readers loved it too. And those pictures were gorgeous. But, Isn’t it amazing how much a simple sensational piece can strike a chord with people over a more nuanced article, which would only be read by a few.

Vishakha: I do this a lot as a job so I can see the viral appeal, sadly enough. I often wonder if I romanticised the job or has the industry forgotten that we’re not supposed to peddle to masses. For us, every decision has become about how to get more clicks.

Pakhi: I guess a question that often comes up in my mind is – does the writer have agency to partially alter and/or be selective with stories to put his own beliefs across or to influence popular mindset??

Vishakha: From my personal experience, a writer’s agency, especially a junior one, puts just short of their editor’s desk. To be honest. I’m not saying there aren’t good people writing to just be able to ask the right questions or editors who don’t want to. But, it’s almost like the media industry is having FOMO and wants to get it right with everyone so they can reach the maximum amount of audience. There’s no context besides virality.

Avantika: Writers do have some agency in the content they put out in their name. They can choose to be present with their subject, dig deeper, and collect the facts. They can choose what verbal picture comes forward by finding out, then inserting information that is, well, informative. Or they can stick to Nutella journalism. There’s not a journalist in sight who doesn’t know to leave the BS info towards the bottom of the story because that’s where desk cuts from. In that light, I do think writers need to take responsibility for what they put out and don’t.

Janani: This also can be seen in polar opposite form in some of the reporting on Goan-based perfumer Monika who was recently found murdered. The reporting is so superficial and about capturing people’s attention vs. sharing the facts of a really tough story. It really made me sad to her life reduced to some ridiculous headlines.

Avantika: Think the press would be be comfortable using such headlines and details if the victims were men? At what part is how she was found undisputed or thus far, relevant information to release to the press?

Vishakha: I can see what you’re saying about Monika’s murder coverage. This reference to how she was found is irrelevant to the solving of the crime. And moreover, it’s traumatic for family and friends. Though, there is objectification of men that we overlook, I’m inclined to think that if a man – a male perfumer – had been found like Monika, such unnecessary details wouldn’t be leaked. But, there’d be some stereotype, like a hook to catch the reader.

Janani: True. I too feel there it would’ve an automatic no fact-checking required “a gay guy found on party beach” headline, I think. There’s no shortage of stereotypes.

Janani: I do struggle when really young kids are in the spotlight for super lofty goals before they actually get there – e.g starting her own academy. It just feels like she’s too young to know where life will take her. I kind of felt the same way about Malala.

Avantika: I feel for her too. And others who are made into these symbols. I often wonder whether they’re truly unwilling but just have to go on due to societal expectations. Colour me skeptical, but doesn’t it seem like women still being portrayed as either madonnas who shouldn’t be questioned on anything, or as people who “ask for it”?

Any thoughts, pyjama peeps? Join our discussion using the comments below.

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