New Delhi: Last week, as Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. and Merrill Lynch and Co. slid from their pedestals, Indranil Mukherjee hurried to the Bombay Stock Exchange. Not to sell shares, but to prowl the sidewalk under the exchange’s digital board with a camera in his hand. Mukherjee, a photographer with the Agence-France Presse news agency in Mumbai, has been shooting pictures for stock market stories for four years.
During downturns such as this one, that inevitably means scouring brokerage houses and the exchange for grim-looking brokers and investors, to go with the grim-looking news the next day.
Media response: Stockbrokers react to the Lehman bankruptcy on 15 Sep. The graphic in the foreground traces the number of times that global media has used the words collapse, crisis and meltdown since then. Ashesh Shah / Mint
The exchange is Mukherjee’s blood-soaked arena of choice. “There are always onlookers standing in front of the stock exchange, watching the movement of the share indices,” he says. “They always give me the expressions that I look for to reflect the situation of the market.”
Over the last few days, these stock images—the distraught investor watching his wealth fade or the harried trader on his mobile phone—and stock terms sych as crisis, collapse and meltdown, have fast become the media’s preferred method to telegraph the severity of sticky financial situations. At times, they are alarming, cliched, even hyperbole.
But then again, says one editor: “The last few weeks have been unprecedented.”
The India-based editor with an international news agency calls these “emotive words” and offers a slew of others: “plunge,” “nosedive,” “freefall.” Her newsroom, she says, has a strict guideline on using them: Don’t, if you can help it.
“But it does depend,” she says, speaking on condition of anonymity. “So you read other people, because there’s safety in numbers. You don’t want to be the first one to call something a ‘crisis,’ but if somebody authoritative says it first in a quote, then it becomes more legitimate.”
Starting on 14 September, the Sunday that brought the twin announcements of Lehman’s bankruptcy and Bank of America Corp.’s takeover of Merrill, Google Trends, a feature that charts traffic, shows a clear spike in worldwide news mentions of the terms “collapse,” “meltdown” and “crisis.”
Simultaneously, television channels began their live coverage of events that were primed for drama.
Reprising the World Trade Center attacks on 11 September, one network even featured a graphic of an airliner labelled “US Credit Crisis” heading for four tall Wall Street towers, representing the four big investment banks. The CNBC-TV18 business network relied largely on footage from its American partner, CNBC.
“There was an unprecedented collapse, yet there was great poise in what they did,” says Harsha Subramaniam, assistant news editor at eCNBC-TV18. “They’d simply branded their coverage ‘Wall Street Crisis,’ not stuff like ‘Blood on the Street,’ which, very frankly, is the language we would use,” he says.
On television, Subramaniam also mentions the importance of tone. “As a business channel, we’re generally sympathetic to industry concerns,” he says. “But as anchors, there is an attempt to sound neutral on air, and not act like there’s been a death in the family if the market crashes.”
Such restraint can matter more than consumers think. A few years ago, Andrew Lo, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management, set out to determine the “emotional context” of articles that appeared in The Wall Street Journal. Choosing emotive words, such as “anxiety” and “depression,” Lo counted the number of times they appeared in articles on a day, and then linked them to movements of the stock market.
In an interview to The New York Times, Lo said the frequency of such words on any given day “tended to be a leading indicator of the (Standard & Poor’s) index.”
But picking your words, in any case, seems to be an easier task than picking pictures. Prashanth Vishwanathan, a freelance photojournalist for Bloomberg, recalls one attempt to focus a man outside the Bombay Stock Exchange.
“He was wearing glasses that were silvered and opaque, so I looked into the glasses, and I could see the BSE reflected there,” Vishwanathan says. “I thought that made a good picture, so I went near to photograph him. He was so upset with me that he started shouting and left immediately.”
Investors and other onlookers generally don’t object to being photographed, Mukherjee points out. “But there are exceptions. Sometimes they cover their faces or turn and move away from the frame to avoid being photographed,” he says. “In such cases, I don’t shoot. I wait for my next picture.”