Saturday, July 8, 2006

True crime

An ongoing series to highlight the different reportorial styles of American and Indian media. Today's topic? The seedy underworld.

For Americans, reporting crime is hard boiled. You have to watch your words, watch what they imply, and know the law. Do you know the difference between "assault" and "battery"? If you don't, that's a lawsuit. Know how to hedge yourself against libel?

But it's not all a nightmare -- at least you have access to a blotter (usually), and can rely on the police to give you (relatively) unbiased information. In India, it's a bit tougher -- you have to know the police, or find out the story from the source; the processes of law and justice are a bit more obscured. Inevitably, there is less hand wringing over condemning a man in a headline, etc., and often, the crime stories sound like something from a pulp novel.

Which leads me to an excellent piece in the Indian Express by Rajeev P.I., "Doctors, this is cyanide ... the tongue burns, it tastes acrid." For the lazy -- and so I never lose track of the true genius that is this piece -- the text (I've bolded the parts that would be instantly deleted were this in America):

This could be another first of sorts from India’s suicides capital — Kerala. A bankrupt jeweller in Palakkad has demolished the legend about people tasting cyanide dying before they could pick up a pen and write down what it really tastes like. This man tasted the poison, addressed a note in some detail to doctors on it, then died.

State Health Secretary Vishwas Mehta says he is contacting experts to see if this note could be of some use to science. Forensic department sources say there is plenty of scientific literature theoretically deducing cyanide’s taste from analysing its known chemical properties — but they have yet to see any that says someone had actually tasted the deadly stuff, and then documented it.

Police say 32-year-old Prasad, said to be a reader of crime thrillers, had checked into a seedy lodge in Palakkad last week, deciding to die. A small time gold jewellery trader, Prasad had gone bankrupt after a couple of north Indian conmen sold him spurious ornaments passed off as gold. He carried the cyanide with him — it is commonly used in gold extraction work everywhere.

Prasad mixed the cyanide in a tumbler, stirred it with the bottom of his pen, then sat down to write the suicide note to his kin. The police presume that by the time he was nearly done with it, he would have been absently chewing on the pen’s bottom with the cyanide on it. His suicide note abruptly goes off course to address doctors:

‘‘Doctors, (this is) potassium cyanide. I have tasted it. It comes through slowly at the beginning, and then it burns, the whole tongue burns and feels hard. The taste is very acrid...I had read in some novel about killing a man discreetly with cyanide. It was smeared on the pages of a book that he was reading, and when he touched his tongue with his finger to turn the book’s pages, he died and no one suspected... I am now convinced how easily someone can kill another using this...’’

Forensic officials say Prasad’s description of its taste tallies with the surmises in scientific journals. A mere 300 mcg of cyanide could kill a man. The police think that though the poison might have begun acting fast while he wrote and chewed on his pen, Prasad would have collapsed and died immediately after he drank up the remaining portion of the deadly brew as well. The autopsy has now confirmed it was potassium cyanide.

Now, if I, as a theoretical American journalist, was to write this story, it might sound something like this:

A bankrupt jeweller from Palakkad committed suicide earlier this week by ingesting cyanide, officials from the Forensic Department released today.

And, despite the myth that cyanide is so lethal that it kills instantly upon ingestion, Prasad, 32, addressed a note to doctors on its taste before he died.

Etc. And, sorry, I am woefully out of practice as a journalistic writer, so I know that those two graphs can be picked apart and likely would never be printed anywhere.

Better? Worse? Comparative merits? Is it fair to compare journalism across cultures, assuming that one's factual literature should mirror the society which it assumes to represent?


Seetharam Kharti said...

Well in America citing privacy issues some stuff is never made public. Compare that to India where journos enter inside hospital emergency rooms and videotape everything!

I think we really need some serious discussion on how far media can go when covering citizens privacy especially in medical cases. Today it is someone, but tomorrow it can be our video on TV without us wearing a chaddi.

Someone from Udupi, Karnataka has started a good debate on journalistic ethics covering medical issues..someone forwarded that to me.. Check

Anonymous said...

Seems like the journalist has made it like a script for a movie!

That aside,have u ever watched one of these "Crime Diaries" ?

Gawd,if this were America , the shoddy ( and in some cases shady) narrators' asses would be in jail.

They are utterly insensitive and crude about the criminals . I wonder if being a criminal gives somebody ( of questionable ethics I shud say ) a right to disrespect you on TV?Names like Ravi Belegere ( from Bangalore) comes to mind.

Swapna said...

It's true that in America, you need to be much more careful and the details are given more attention.

But then I'm no expert - just someone who has read both styles.

RS Mehta, Univ of Berkeley said...

Interesting blog, but the diff between your specimen and the Indian Express report is, the latter has life in it. I wish you had read this guy, RAJEEV PI, more _ probably one of the best journos alive in India, a real genius.

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't disagree with Mr Mehta, but anyone can go overboard once in a while _ and Rajeev PI can't be an exception.