The deluge last week was a major news story; as were such previous disasters as the tsunami, 9/11, the Kutch quake and many others. Such events often bring out the best in sections of the press. Strangely, they also seem to bring out the worst in others.
We've already heard that some TV channels aired old footage -- whether of previous downpours or from earlier in this one -- over and over. After 9/11, plenty of people pointed out that the dancing Palestinians that some US TV channels put on air, implying that they were celebrating the terrorism, was actually footage shot years before. And it's not just that TV channels reuse old footage, it's also that they often run it in an endless loop. So you quickly begin to recognize the scenes of submerged cars, or trudging commuters, or animal carcasses. Because you saw them only a few seconds previously, and will see them again in a few seconds.
Ambitious channels, anxious to find any edge over their competitors? But it happens with ambitious journalists too. Some make up stories of their conversations with the families of soldiers killed in wars. Others fudge dates or places to make it seem like they were there; or rewrite a more diligent colleague's coverage to pass it off as their own. Some even steal from themselves: I know a journalist who has written about an experience from a previous deluge, language carefully chosen to imply that it had happened this time, to imply that this person was out in the rains this time.
Which this person was not.
How much of this is unethical? Is a minute-long loop of footage unethical?
But more important, given the payoff, does ethics matter? After all, how many viewers will realize that the footage on their screens is old? How many readers will know that the vivid experience they are reading of actually happened years before? Few, and that's the point. Because what, really, is the risk? A trifle. And when you're ambitious, you take that risk.
And if the few find out, what can they really do? The report is out there, seen and marvelled at. That's all that matters. Not the ethics.