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How Dhaka's Reputation Was Sacrificed At The Altar Of Clickbait Journalism

16/09/2016 8:09 AM IST | Updated 17/09/2016 7:40 AM IST
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Edward Rees/ Twitter
Edward Rees/ Twitter

Eid al-Adha (Qurbani/Bakr Eid) is one of the two major religio-social festivals the people of Bangladesh celebrate with a fair amount of grandeur. This festival is specifically characterized by its tradition of animal sacrifice (mostly cow or goat) at the beginning of the day, followed by a distribution of the meat to friends, relatives and the needy. Although Bangladesh and some other Subcontinental and Muslim countries follow the tradition on a grand scale, it's not so commonplace in most other Muslim countries. In Bangladesh, the tradition transcends religion – the poorest people probably get a big supply of their annual protein intake during the Eid ul-Adha season. The festival is also a major source of raw hide for the $1 billion leather industry of Bangladesh.

All the photographs and video footage were taken from a single part of south central Dhaka, known as the Shantinagar area.

In the past, most people would conduct the sacrifice in their backyard or a designated part of their household compound. However, rapid urbanization has meant that few people have the luxury of such space and are thus forced to perform the ritual on the streets and alleys. Dhaka is a place where 15,414,000 inhabitants live within a roughly 134 sq mile area, making it the 16th largest and most densely populated city in the world. Consider this for perspective: in Dhaka 115,000 inhabitants live in one square mile while distant second Mumbai accommodates 80,110 people per square mile. In such a populous place, ritual animal sacrifices on a mass scale on the streets do pose a public health challenge. While the city authorities do what they can, there's a period of time during the day on Eid where the gory remnants of the sacrifices do assault the senses, with blood staining the streets and animal parts littered near garbage disposal bins. For any delay in cleaning up, the concerned authorities are loudly criticized by the media and citizens alike.

Not related to this Eid-specific public works issue, Dhaka has a serious waterlogging problem. Rapid urbanization has eliminated many natural water drainage channels known as khans and bills. As a result, after a big downpour of monsoon rain, parts of Dhaka are inundated with water for prolonged periods of time.

During the recently celebrated Eid ul-Adha, Dhaka faced a perfect storm of two public works crisis. A heavy monsoon downpour followed the morning's ritual sacrifice on Dhaka's streets. While, the rain washed away the blood stains in some parts of the city and came as a welcome relief, in other parts of Dhaka that suffer from serious waterlogging, it made matters worse. In certain streets where the blood of sacrificial animals was not yet cleaned, this late morning rain did create patches of blood-stained waterlogging.

Waterlogging in a small part of Dhaka during the annual animal sacrifice is not as newsworthy a story as an entire city running with "rivers of blood".

During the evening of Eid, one such photo (which has not been verified to be authentic) started circulating on social media. It showed a street flooded with rusty/ reddish water. The photo very quickly turned into a news report with the sensational headline "Rivers of Blood in Dhaka" in a local newspaper's online edition. Very soon this news was picked up by regional newspapers like the Khakee Times. In rapid succession, international media (including the BBC, The Mirror, CNN, ABC News, New York Daily News, The Guardian) followed suit, with headlines featuring variations of the "rivers of blood flowing through Dhaka" theme. The Washington Post also posted a video in its online edition. As expected, the Indian and Pakistani media also ran similar stories. All the photographs and video footage used in the above mentioned reports were taken from a single part of south central Dhaka, known as the Shantinagar area. For decades, this area has been notorious for sustained waterlogging following any amount of rain.

It is clear that waterlogging in a small part of Dhaka during the annual animal sacrifice is not as newsworthy a story as an entire city "stained red" or running with "rivers of blood". The grisly imagery is excellent clickbait and the media, from tabloids to reputed newspapers, knew it and capitalized on it. News outlets are desperate to attract readers to their online sites and the phrase "rivers of blood" makes for great bait.

Ben Frampton last year wrote for the BBC that:

"...in the digital age, a new word has become synonymous with online journalism -- clickbait. Put simply, it is a headline which tempts the reader to click on the link to the story. But the name is used pejoratively to describe headlines which are sensationalized, turn out to be adverts or are simply misleading."

For once, Dhaka got bad press without being fully deserving of it and Bangladesh's reputation suffered on account of clickbait journalism.

As our media industry rapidly loses its revenue from print subscriptions and becomes more and more dependent on revenue from online advertisements, clickbait has taken precedence over accuracy and fairness. The more clicks a news outlet gets, the more unique visitors per day, the more is the advertising revenue.

For once, Dhaka got bad press without being fully deserving of it and Bangladesh's reputation suffered on account of clickbait journalism.

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