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Friday, August 31, 2012

169 - No institute is an island - The Hindu


The response of authorities changes when it comes to internal issues

One of the first lessons I learnt from a senior colleague, was that a reporter was never to promote anything, anybody. However, when once I asked him if I could write a piece on a defence project that students of IIT- Madras had ventured into, he immediately said, “Go for it, we have just one institute of excellence, we have to pamper it.”

I thought the pampering never stopped. But perhaps, some don’t feel quite that way. Last week, in the aftermath of the controversy between a newspaper and IIT-M over ‘objectionable photographs’ and an assault on the photographer concerned, I watched a video put up by the institute’s media wing - The Fifth Estate. There, students were critical of the ‘biased media’ and attributed this coverage to high expectations of a premier institution such as IIT. I was struck then, by the different perceptions of how bias works, especially in the context of institutions of excellence.

Many of the best students in the country go the IITs which also boast of excellent faculty members. In fact, contact diaries of most journalists will contain a list of professors who can be called upon for opinions on everything. Most of them are the most concise and accurate, and thus remain some of the most prized contacts for journalists. However, their response and the accessibility somehow drastically changes when it comes to what are known as ‘internal issues’ – enforcement of discipline, tackling suicides etc.

Like most other premier educational institutes, IIT-M is a bit of an island, isolated from the outside world, ostensibly to promote scholarly freedom. The ground rules for covering such institutes of excellence — whether they are IIT, Kalakshetra or Apollo Hospitals — are sometimes quite different though, theoretically, they should be the same as those for other institutions. The expertise and standards involved often lead to society and by extension, the media, viewing them with a certain amount of reverence. But when questions are raised or fingers pointed at such institutions, one often notices a sense of hurt emerging from them, almost as if they are the victims of a larger injustice. What is of importance here, is that other institutions are scrutinised as much as, if not more (occasionally due to easier access) than an institution such as IIT-M.

It should be evident to anybody, except those who access the media solely for news about themselves, that coverage of any institution is often part of a larger reporting pattern. Take the case of student suicides. A senior IIT professor often chides me, saying that covering IIT suicides is a disease the media needs to get rid of. Covering the suicide of a girl who took the extreme step out of personal reasons may be of not much relevance to society, but can the same be said about the death of a student, who after a brilliant performance in school, enters a premier institute, fails in every test and ends his life out of despair? Do not such suicides, which are a powerful reflection of the influence of language barriers, urban-rural divides and caste on education speak volumes of the situation of our institutions and deserve to be discussed and studied?.

What is disconcerting is the fact that this ‘exaggerated’ or ‘biased’ coverage is never an issue when there is reporting of academic achievements or innumerable stories are dedicated to issues of autonomy of the institution or the coverage of technical and cultural fests. Undoubtedly, there is much the media needs to introspect about — style, content, priorities. But those levelling this criticism would do well to remember that while it is easy to hope for ‘truth to prevail’, it is also vital that all institutions look within and into their role in society. All that the media can attempt is faithful, ethical coverage – that may cover both the best and the worst of these institutes.