The Journalist and the Vulture

What Solicitor General Tushar Mehta does not understand about the media

29 May 2020
Photojournalists run for cover as a tear-gas canister fired by the Indian security forces explodes near a shrine in Srinagar, Kashmir, in November 2019. On 28 May, before the Supreme Court, the solicitor general Tushar Mehta described photojournalists documenting the ongoing migrant crisis—an outcome of the nationwide lockdown to combat the coronavirus—as “vultures.”
Saqib Majeed/SOPA Images/LightRocket/ Getty Images
Photojournalists run for cover as a tear-gas canister fired by the Indian security forces explodes near a shrine in Srinagar, Kashmir, in November 2019. On 28 May, before the Supreme Court, the solicitor general Tushar Mehta described photojournalists documenting the ongoing migrant crisis—an outcome of the nationwide lockdown to combat the coronavirus—as “vultures.”
Saqib Majeed/SOPA Images/LightRocket/ Getty Images

On 28 May, during a Supreme Court hearing on the migrant crisis caused by the nationwide lockdown, Tushar Mehta, the solicitor general of India, narrated a story to the bench. It was about a photojournalist called Kevin Carter, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1994 for a photograph called “The Vulture and The Little Girl.” A few months after winning the Pulitzer, Carter, troubled by all that he had witnessed, took his own life. Mehta pulled the story out of the archives to blame the media for keeping the mounting death toll of migrant workers, and the tragic visuals emerging of their struggles, on the front pages of newspapers or in public consciousness. He implied that those documenting the crisis were akin to vultures, citing Carter’s storied image completely outside its context, and with gross factual inaccuracies. 

Last week, like the weeks before it, Indians woke up to jolting images of the humanitarian crisis—one of a starved migrant worker eating a dog carcass, and another of baby tugging at a cloth covering her dead mother. The 23-year-old woman had collapsed at the Muzaffarpur railway station, due to a combination of factors including heat, hunger, and dehydration. The tragic visuals made it increasingly difficult for the Supreme Court to turn a blind eye to the migrant-worker crisis. On 26 May, the court took suo moto cognisance of the crisis and issued notice to all governments, ordering the centre and the states to immediately provide free-of-cost transport, food and shelter to migrant workers. But for Mehta, the growing coverage of the migrant-worker crisis seemed to have raised another question: what were the journalists who were documenting the crisis doing to help?

Before I dive into Carter’s story, I would like to state that most of my colleagues have been donating to relief efforts for migrants, or aiding in the small ways they can—without writing stories about their acts of charity. It is a personal choice, but not a journalistic one. Within journalism, which like every other profession has its own rules, ethics, code of conduct, such interventions are frowned upon.

Carter is the poster boy for this ethical dilemma in journalism. His work is taught in journalism schools, and the Pulitzer-winning image in particular—debatably among the most controversial photographs in the history of photojournalism—has come to define the ethical grey zone the media works in.

Vidya Krishnan is a writer and journalist. Her first book, Phantom Plague: The Untold Story of How Tuberculosis Shaped our History, will be published by PublicAffairs in 2021.

Keywords: COVID-19 coronavirus lockdown migrant workers Tushar Mehta Supreme Court of India Photojournalism
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