A Sign of the ‘Times’

When a newspaper of sterling repute is willing to run a story that would cause such an outrage that even the Prime Minister’s Office promises to look into the matter, only to be later proven false by basic scientific facts, it is indeed a sign of the times. When the Hindustan Times published its controversial story on June 26-‘Docs Turn Scores Of Baby Girls Into Boys‘- it caused a furor. The very idea of converting a baby girl into a boy in a country which has a record of female infanticide, feticide and a convoluted idea of women amongst the uneducated, was met with widespread revulsion. The Indian public could not believe that the same convoluted idea had taken a new grotesque shape in the form of genitoplasty. So, when The Hindu published an article a month later largely disproving HT’s controversial piece, the entire nation breathed a collective sigh of relief. Yet, the conundrum remains. How in their right minds did HT get this story so very wrong? Was there an ulterior motive?

The first glaring error by HT was their description of genitoplasty. It was portrayed by the newspaper in a manner which is medically impossible. A basic fact-check on genitoplasty (Beware! Its a heavy read) would reveal that converting a baby girl into a boy by surgically creating a penis with other parts of the baby’s flesh is simply not possible. Its not even been hypothesized before! It would seem that the reporter’s imagination had taken flight whilst she was writing up this article. HT’s excuse for the blunder is a poor one, claiming that they only reported what the doctors told them. To suggest that doctors, who’ve supposedly performed ‘hundreds’ of these surgeries, would describe genitoplasty as they’ve printed it is unconvincing at best. The doctors themselves claim that their words have been manipulated to suit the intent of the article. However, this raises serious concerns. A basic fact-check on any story, certainly a story of such volatility, is almost ritual in most newsrooms. Such shoddy reporting has literally destroyed the reputations of the experts and doctors mentioned in the article.

Another matter that has more than a few eyebrows raised is the number of such surgeries performed by the doctors. According to the story about 200 to 300 such surgeries have been performed in Indore. The statistic does seem suspect when all the reporter has is an anonymous quote from a supposed family member whose words could easily be interpreted in different ways. All the Editor of HT, Abhijit Majumder, had to say on the statistic was, “We never said anywhere in the article that they are perfectly healthy girl babies which are being converted.” So does that mean unhealthy girl babies being converted into boys is alright Mr.Majumder? With HT resorting to conjecture as their defence, it is a sad state of affairs.

There is however, one positive aspect to the story. The fact that the procedure is not regulated by any known system and isn’t under the purview of any law under the Indian Penal Code is a valid one. HT, quite rightly, points out that the procedure of gender transformation is open to abuse and is a potential disaster waiting to happen.

This brings us to the final question of ‘Why?’ Why did HT publish this disaster of a story without due diligence? The Editor claimed that the reporter had spent only about two weeks on the story and that may have caused the inaccuracy in the facts mentioned. Then why publish it in the first place? One word- Competition. DNA was due to launch the first edition of their newspaper on the very same day in Indore. With this story HT had successfully taken the limelight away from its competitor’s big new launch and managed to sell a whole lot of papers.

It begs the question. Was this a simple case of woeful reporting and ignorant editing? Or was this a planned attempt at sabotaging one’s competitor at the cost of the public? Errors of commission rather than omission? It is a scary thought. To use sensationalism and manipulation in such a manner can very well set a dangerous new trend. The very fact that the public fora are up and about debating the issue is perhaps a sign of the times.


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