Author Archives: rkahlon

Sunil Tripathi and the Need for Media Accountability

A recent discussion in our Violence seminar centered on the idea of media accountability in news reporting. The lecturer, Rebecca Palpant, directed particular attention to the relationship between media coverage/bias and societal views on mental health issues. According to Dr. Palpant, the media’s portrayal of people with mental health problems and the issues themselves holds significant power in defining and maintaining societal norms. This directly affects the way that patients with mental health disorders are treated, both in a private and public sphere. Personally, the patient’s social interactions, treatment options, and education and job opportunities will be affected by his or hers diagnosis; in the public sphere, media coverage influences hospitals, insurance companies, public policy experts, and government leaders as they are faced with decisions regarding mental health. Dr. Palpant emphasized the media’s large role in both of these arenas and discussed the importance of both publicity and media accountability with regards to these sorts of complex, sensitive issues.


I couldn’t help but think of Dr. Palpant’s words as I followed coverage of the Boston bombings over these past two weeks. As the initial events of the MIT shooting and Watertown chase were occurring, the Twitter hashtag “#SunilTripathi” went viral. Tripathi, a student of Indian-American heritage, had gone missing from Brown University approximately one month prior. The online community mis-identified Tripathi as one of the bombers, and Twitter, Reddit, blogs, and even certain news organizations began naming him as a suspect. Hours later, when the FBI finally released the names of the bombers, Tamerlane and Dzokhar Tsarnaev, the focus quickly shifted to their backgrounds and beliefs instead.


Tripathi’s body was found in a Providence, R.I., river approximately a week after the Watertown incident. Although many news sources retracted their inaccurate reports and individuals and the Reddit community offered their apologies, Sunil Tripathi’s story quickly fell to the back of the news pages, a sad saga of an apparently depressed college student who committed suicide.


I found multiple aspects of this chain of events troublesome. The mis-identification of Tripathi and the premature rush to publicize and condemn him without official confirmation was highly disturbing. Not only did it show an alarming lack of concern for this man’s family and reputation, but it also had hallmarks of xenophobia and discrimination. As an Indian-American myself, I am particularly sensitive to this issue; it did not escape my attention that quite a few of the sources naming him as a suspect commented on his skin tone and suggested a possible link to Islam. Another complicated facet was Tripathi’s apparent depression, which had compelled his family to make a Facebook group begging for Tripathi’s safe return.


This detail correlated directly with Dr. Palpant’s discussion on the media bias linking mental illness with aggression and criminal behavior. Already a suspect based on his missing status and ethnicity, Tripathi’s mental health problems secured his involvement with the bombings.  Writers and commentators alike made comments, since removed, which illustrated Tripathi as a disturbed individual who was probably influenced by Islamic radicals. The rush of the 24/7 news cycle and the need to be first caused many websites to name him without confirmation, and this is where the issue of media accountability becomes not only relevant, but essential.


Had Sunil Tripathi still been alive, he would have awoken in the morning to find his reputation in tatters due to this overzealous and irresponsible reporting. As it stands, this experience must have been unimaginably traumatizing for the Tripathi family, which has been largely ignored since the initial rush to gain information regarding Sunil. This story is a clear example of the sheer importance of media accountability, particularly for sensitive news issues. Until then, we are left with a sober warning about mass media on the Internet and the Tripathi family’s final public statement to everyone who is struggling: “Be open to letting someone in when it is you who is faltering. Lend your hand. We need it. The world needs it.”


Economics Behind Violence

            The focus of the class this week was the relationship between violence and economics. The lecture speaker, Dr. Phaedra Corso, emphasized the economic implications that occur as a result of violence. This type of information was cited as being significant for policy-makers in public health, law enforcement, etc. because it allows these individuals to assess tangible data in order to formulate a large-scale response. For example, if hospital data shows a noticeably high rate of domestic violence patients, programs can be put into place in order to raise awareness about resources for abuse victims.
            This discussion reminded me of Dr. Robert Agnew’s lecture on strain theory and the social causes that lead to violent behavior. To paraphrase, strain theory holds that stress/stressors cause individuals to react negatively and may lead to violent crime. Also during this lecture, the idea of social control and social disorganization was discussed. Violence, it is held, can result from the loss of social control mechanisms, such as fear of punishment and positive family environments.
            Economics, in my opinion, has an important role in the discussion regarding these two theories. Although Dr. Corso focused on the economic effects of violence, there is also room for serious research and discussion about the economic motivators that lead to violent behavior. This idea encompasses many forms of violence, from war to interpersonal and self-directed violence. While not absolute, there seems to be a clear connection between economic difficulty and high rates of crime and violent behavior.
            There is a particularly direct relationship between poverty and crime. Gary Becker, the influential economist, is known for his idea (1968) that people resort to crime if the costs of committing the crime are lower than the possible benefits. Following this logic, people who live in poverty have a much lower cost/benefit ratio than those individuals who are not in poverty and, thus, have more to lose. Lack of education, unemployment, poor living conditions, drug use, and dangerous environments are all associated with poverty, and each of these factors is also linked with crime.
            This is an important relationship to consider because the economic aspect behind violent behavior helps perpetuate violence in low-income regions, from housing projects in urban American cities to the slums of developing countries. In fact, scholars and experts following this logic have designed responses that incorporate components of poverty, such as this study by J. Gilligan in which education of violent inmates is the primary suggestion for violence reduction. Ultimately, in order to successfully develop and institute programs that decrease violence and rehabilitate victims and communities, the economic situation must be considered, both as a result of and a reason for violent behavior.