Alicia C. Shepard
Each time the Taliban commander cracks a leather strap against the forcibly restrained Pakistani girl, she lets out another blood-chilling wail.
The flogging occurs more than 30 times, according to a YouTube video.
It is excruciating to see and hear, and some NPR listeners objected strongly when Morning Edition did a story on April 7 that aired the anguished screams of a teenager whose alleged crime was appearing in public with a man who was not her husband.
"This is the kind of gratuitous exploitation of someone's personal terror and helplessness that I would expect from those less concerned with the story than with the ratings," emailed Lael Isola. "Thanks for that bit of horror that will stay in my mind today."
Another listener was equally offended.
"It was completely unnecessary to air the footage of that poor girl's screams," wrote Christina Brown. "Worse still was the plug that they were about to be heard. I am sure the full story of her beating was terrible but I was no longer listening. I was disappointed to see NPR stoop to such sensational journalism tactics."
The young Pakistani was said to be 17. NPR correspondent Philip Reeves' piece explored the video's impact in Pakistan's Swat Valley, where the local government was working on a peace accord with the Taliban (that accord was ratified after the piece aired.) Some Swat residents feel their leaders should have nothing to do with the Taliban; others want their government to make peace with them.
Either way, many in Pakistan were appalled by the video.
"The video of the girl's flogging angered and disgusted many Pakistanis, particularly women," Reeves told me in an email. "There have been many, many unfilmed incidents from Swat of atrocities by the Taliban, including beheadings. But this incident drove home the brutality of the Taliban's vigilante in a manner that others did not. It made a huge impact at a crucial time when the country and the international community are debating whether Pakistani authorities should be making peace with the Taliban, or attempting to eradicate them with force."
Could Reeves' piece have been as effective without the audio of her screams?
I think not. To my mind, the screams define the word flogging in a way that saying or printing the word never could. They create an authentic, intimate experience of what a flogging might actually be like. One winces each time the strap smacks across the young girl's body — even though she is fully clothed.
The use of the screams in the piece does what good journalism should do: Put the listener there. Her wailing makes the listener see and feel something that, most Americans, thankfully, will never experience.
"That may be painful to the listener, but this is a story with significant implications," said Bob Steele, a DePauw University journalism professor. "The story was produced in a thoughtful way. They used enough of the natural sounds of the woman being flogged to capture the moment, but they didn't overuse it."
Steele also pointed out that the video was made public in Pakistan, and had a huge impact on Pakistanis, particularly those living in the Swat Valley. Because the United States is so intensely involved in Pakistani affairs, American listeners needed to hear it — not just hear about it.
NPR's goal was not to be sensationalistic, as some charged. The audience hears only the final product — and isn't privy to the discussion beforehand. Reeves and his U.S. editor did not reflexively add the audio for the shock factor. There was deliberation behind the decision.
"I did indeed put a lot of thought into whether the video might upset people," said Reeves, who is normally based in New Delhi. "I also thought about it in the context of other 'difficult' audio that we often gather in areas of conflict, such as the terrible weeping of relatives who have lost loved ones in a suicide bombing. I have many times used that kind of audio before —with restraint — and have never received a complaint, even though the pain it conveys, and the crime it describes, is immeasurably greater."
Reeves thinks many women living in Swat would be upset with NPR if it didn't run the video.
The other complaint was that NPR should have given listeners a stronger warning about the cruelty they were about to hear. They wanted NPR to say: "Warning. You are about to hear an actual flogging."
But Morning Edition substitute host Ari Shapiro did warn listeners when he began the 4 1/2-minute piece with: "In Pakistan, a brutal beating caught on video has ignited a ferocious debate. The Taliban flogged a teenage girl. You will hear the footage in a moment."
I always advocate in favor of warnings with enough time to prepare listeners where warranted. In this case, while the warning could have been more explicit, it did alert the listeners that something unsettling was about to be aired.
My issue with the piece was that Reeves talked over the screaming, using parts of it as background sound. The audio was much too powerful, and needed to be heard by itself.
"In any radio story it's always good to have a 'nat' sound," said Nafisa Safarova, a radio reporter from Uzbekistan who I asked to listen to the piece. "In this case, the reporter could use a shorter bite. It fits the opening, but there was no need in fading and bringing the sound up again. Because it's not Beethoven to play and keep the music under your narration. It's a screaming child. You describe the flogging, give a brief 'nat' sound and go to the next graph."
Reeves said that time was a factor in his decision to narrate over the screams.
"I was eager to ensure that I had space to convey a key point — which other reports had overlooked — that a fair number of Pakistanis were horrified by the video but still want peace-making to continue in Swat," said Reeves. "So I opted to post the sound and track (the script) over it. I actually thought I was being restrained by keeping the section on the video fairly brief, and not making further use of the sound later in the piece."
What makes NPR's storytelling so powerful and compelling is the adroit use of sound. In this case, the story would have been much weaker — and less effective — without the screams.