Vulnerability is strength.

Reporting News and Psychology — by Amir Sultan

May 18, 2020

As a researcher in Psychology, Amir Sultan writes about relevant concepts and terms developed in his field through academic research done on two particular cases of cold-blooded murder. The piece offers interesting observations about studies in Psychology that relate to the world of news reporting. Some of the events discussed and referenced via hyperlink to their direct sources are of a violent nature. Reader and viewer discretion is advised for those sensitive to such events covered widely in the news.

Recently, in the Kasanj district of Uttar Pradesh, a handicapped man shot a 62-year-old lady to death in public while a man filmed the entire event from a rooftop. In the video filmed on a mobile, the handicapped man named Monu pulls out a country-made pistol (Katta) and points at the lady, while an entire group of people from the rooftops above shout at him to stop, yet no one intervenes in what unfolds immediately below, in the alleyway. The lady—with frail speed due to her elderly age or stigmatising fear—tries to escape by attempting to enter a nearby house. Meanwhile, the cruel man pulls the trigger and the woman falls to the ground after the first shot. Seeing her on the ground, Monu literally fixes his pistol with a reload and shoots the lady again, this time fatally injuring her to the point of murder in plain sight, while above the neighbours shout at the man in a clamour.

Eventually, Monu gets arrested by the district police. The videos of the whole act were put on Twitter by Times of India journalist Arvind Chauhan. In one of the videos when asked about the motives behind the killing, Monu replies that he and his victim had some property issue and she wanted to sell the property to a Muslim. The first part of this horrific news event was reported by almost all the news broadcasters including Times Now, NDTV, Scoopwhoop and India Today, etc. However, the detail on his motive about the Muslim part—I don’t know why—was taken out of the narrative by most. Nevertheless, this reminds me of a similar event taking place elsewhere across the globe.

On 13 March 1964, a 28-year-old woman from New York, Catherine Genovese—known as Ketty Genovese—was murdered in an almost similar manner by a man of the same age. In the original account given, by the killer after his arrest, Winston Moseley ran after Genovese when she was parking her car and stabbed her twice in the back. She screamed and cried for help. Responding to her agonising cry, a man in the neighbourhood shouted at Moseley from a distance, which forced Mosley to run away. However, after about ten minutes, Moseley came back and found Genovese barely conscious on the floor of the same building where he tried to stab her first, struggling for life after his previous two attacks. In this third attack, away from the public eye from the apartments above, Moseley raped Genovese, stabbed her again and stole $49 from her purse, leaving her to die. This third attack spanned around 30 minutes.

On the same day, a local newspaper, The Long Island Press, reported the event. The narrative of several newspapers, particularly The New York Times with its eye-catching headline issued two weeks after the murder, produced an investigative report stating that around 38 people in the vicinity witnessed this dreadful event from their apartments up above and most of them did nothing to help Genovese, who was being murdered on the street below. In fact, many of the neighbours knew that a homicide was taking place. Later, this phenomenon puzzled various psychologists of the time and they started researching about the event leading to the formation of Genovese Syndrome or commonly known as bystander effect.

The bystander effect is a social psychological phenomenon that refers to the cases where individuals do not offer help in an emergency situation when other people are present in large groups. It entails a mode of flawed thinking that someone will call the police or intervene while other people witnessing such horrific events think the same, leading to “diffusion of responsibility.” Here it should be noted that the diffusion of responsibility is evident in the Kasanj case also. Being mute spectators and filming such horrific events from a balcony are clear demonstrations of the bystander effect at play, when groups of people witness a horrific event that can be averted from a  close distance, and choose not to intervene.

In regards to the Genovese case, in 2007, an article published in the American Psychologist journal offered new revelations about the Genovese event, including clarifications that there were no 38 eyewitnesses and police was contacted by the neighbours even at the late hours around 3 a.m. in the morning. To cover up their mismanagement in addressing the situation, the police made up the narrative of 38 eyewitnesses at some stage of their investigation, even though they had actually interrogated 49 people. Abraham Rosenthal, the then editor of The New York Times, pursued the investigative report of “38 witnesses” after the police chief commented about that number of witnesses at a lunch they had together.

Two weeks after the horrific murder, The New York Times put out the report with the shocking headline, “Thirty Eight Who Saw Murder Didn’t Call the Police” and then spread it without proper fact-checking from the actual original sources while other newspapers followed with the dissemination of such a story. Moreover, the authors of the American Psychologist journal article suggested that the whole event became a parable and came up with a new term to explain the condition of such unverified dissemination of the news story, referred by them as information cascade.

What is information cascade and how is it related to such events? It is a phenomenon wherein people observe the actions of others and then make the same choices that the others have made, from sharing news items to disseminating unverified or erroneous information about something or someone. As it is more sensible to do what others are doing, particularly of the fame and prestige of The New York Times, the act in itself is considered both rational and valid. In the case of the murder of the elderly Kasanj Lady, almost none of the news broadcasters reported the whole story and in the Genovese case everyone put the blame on the 38 non-existent people. An altogether different narrative went around.

Nowadays, there are quite a few instances of news reporting that can be studied and evaluated on the basis of psychological research that emanated from the Genovese case. In fact, false information or fake news—one that hides the truth and one that gives a different and self-stylised version of it—gets spread by the same process of information cascade and people believe whatever is laid before them, just because it is repeated and sources are assumed to be trusted and reputed, while in several cases, the truth remains hidden or unverified from a concrete and dirrect source. The world of social media, gossip, hearsay, rumour and private messaging has not made it any easier by any stretch of the imagination.

Lastly, mainstream media outlets that simply quote statements by politicians, public figures, celebrities, government officials and other such figures of power and influence, without assessing such statements, contextualising them properly or evaluating the validity of the claims being made in such statements, illustrate by example the effects of information cascading. Besides, promoting such statements made on social media as “news items” is equally problematic. Recent examples of reporting where fact-checking and verification are in place to prevent information cascading include the following: boiled thick garlic water or cow urine or some amulet as a treatment for Coronavirus; Piyush Goyal, the Minister of Power of India, tweeting a picture (supposedly of some village in India) of Russia promoting a street lightning programme in India. Other instances of the media reporting statements as is include the Solicitor General telling the Supreme Court of India that “not a single bullet was fired by security forces after August 5” as an example of information cascade. The news about the elderly Kasanj lady’s murder, the Ketty Genovese case, miracle cures for the Coronavirus, street lightning or the response of the people of Kashmir regarding the abrogation of Article 370 needs to be assessed in considering the negative impacts of information cascading. Academic research in modern psychology offers a vast set of theories, tests, experiments, concepts and investigations that can be useful in assessing how news is reported and with what accuracy, purpose or even “vested interest” and what impact it can have at a mass level.

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About the Contributor

Amir Sultan is currently enrolled as a PhD research scholar in the Department of Psychology at the University of Kashmir. He is interested in studying problems of Cognitive Science particularly related to language and philosophy. He spends most of his time in pursuing knowledge and between reading, writing and activism, he prefers the first one. Besides his experience in mental health counselling, Amir has published works in national and international research journals. His articles are also featured in some of the dailies of Kashmir. Amir is from Srinagar, Kashmir.