While print media platforms did a far better job during the current crisis, the electronic media indulged in a free for all cut throat competitive run for ratings.
Media has become the only window to the outside world for a locked down nation. If the world is passing through one of the worst crises in human history, the story of the media is no different. While newspapers are unable to reach a sizable section of its readers due to restrictions in movement, the electronic media despite its growing viewership is facing a resource and credibility crunch.
With smartphones becoming the sole companion for information and entertainment, media consumers are using social media platforms extensively. Unfortunately, social media, which has democratised media by enabling the voiceless to raise their voice, has also become the hub of fake content.
While platforms such as WhatsApp, having the largest user base in India, have introduced several self regulatory features such as limiting the number of forwards, rumours and other fake content constitute a significant part of its user generated content.
This is bound to be problematic in a huge country like India with a large population of illiterates and semi-literates, who cannot separate the wheat from the chaff. And in a scenario where security personnel and the law and order machinery are overstretched, this can prove to be disastrous. Seeing is believing and the untrained eyes cannot distinguish between the real and morphed, the genuine and the distorted, the factual and the fictional. The outcome is something like the unfortunate lynching of two Sadhus witnessed in Palghar, Maharashtra recently.
Similar incidents have taken place in the past too whether it be the massive migration of North East students from Bengaluru or the tragic communal violence in Western Uttar Pradesh few years back.
The best of plans and arrangements can collapse like ninepins when you have thousands of migrants gathering to catch trains at Bandra in Mumbai or to catch buses on Delhi-UP border to their native places following circulation of such unverified and often mischievous content. There were TikTok videos which told members of a particular community not to follow norms as this was a divine punishment for their foes. Fortunately, such videos had only few takers.
It’s here that the credibility of mainstream media institutions come into play. With an institutionalised filtration process such as an editorial and strong fact-checking mechanisms in place, the mainstream media is far more equipped to provide authentic information to the readers. They have their foot soldiers on the ground, they have access, the sources and resources at their command to verify and cross verify information before publication.
This apart, there are watchdog platforms such as the Press Council of India, the News Broadcasting Standards Authority, News Broadcasters’ Association, Editors’ Guild etc to whom they are morally and ethically answerable. There are Government institutions such as Registrar of Newspapers of India and the Information & Broadcasting Ministry who can take cognizance of their errors. Being established entities, they also stand to face the wrath of law as there are Constitutional and legal provisions under Indian Penal Code, Criminal Procedure Code and the various laws of the law which impose reasonable restrictions on them.
And above all, they are answerable to millions of their loyal readers and viewers who are unforgiving when it comes to facts and have the potential to impact their readership and ratings and consequently the advertisement revenue. Hence, established media organisations are bound to be much more careful while disseminating information.
While print media platforms did a far better job during the current crisis despite the odds heavily stacked against them, the electronic media including some leading channels indulged in a free for all cut throat competitive run for ratings. While some withdrew their fake content and some expressed regrets, others continued unabashedly with outrightly sectarian hate mongering causing incalculable damage to the fragile social fabric of the nation. The Prime Minister himself had to issue an appeal stating that COVID-19 does not discriminate between castes and communities and the nation has to remain united in this war against Coronavirus.
There were many instances of violation of lockdown by ‘Covidiots’, as such violators have now come to be known, but the over emphasis on blaming a particular organisation in not only news coverage but also heated divisive debates and in the process seeking to drag an entire community resulted not only in widening the chasm between faith groups but also unwarranted hate content on social media platforms. It also incalculably dented our international image with the global media projecting that an entire community was targeted for the mistake of few. The RSS Chief himself in a special address made a fervent appeal to the people to close ranks in this hour of crisis.
In the good old days, in the event of any sectarian clash, the first thing journalists would do was to contact the elders and saner elements in communities concerned and make them appeal for peace. Now it’s just the opposite. The most rabid elements with little following on the ground are handpicked to shout over each other and thereby increase the ratings and vitiate the atmosphere.
Six hours before the first lockdown, the Prime Minister met the proprietors and Editors of leading media houses and exhorted them to support the Government in the fight against the invisible enemy yet taking off on some irresponsible statements made by leaders looking for some oxygen of publicity, some channels went overboard and thereby hindered the creation of a much needed political consensus to fight the disease. Statements were picked out of context, blown out of proportion and reactions sought on them resulting in further divide.
While it’s the duty of the media to support the pro-people measures taken by Governments, local, state or Central and educate the people at large and create awareness about them, they also have the responsibility as the Fourth Estate to highlight the problems faced by the people, the caregivers and analyse the short-term and long-term impact of such measures. Here too, while the print media acted with a certain sense of responsibility, there was an apparent divide on political lines when it came to the electronic media who indulged in blame game.
And yes, the language channels, particularly the regional ones, too were not an exception with many of them engaging in avoidable speculations with regard to the lockdown, airing viral but unsubstantiated videos and indulging in divisive debates.
While some showcased magical cures and preventive drugs, others speculated on the use of anti-Malarial drugs, smoking and even liquor consumption, which triggered substantial amounts of fake content in social media.
This is not meant to be a critique of the electronic and social media and a clean chit to print media. The analysis only seeks to highlight the need for Standard Operating Procedures to be followed in future in the same manner in which one was drawn up for coverage of terror strikes in the wake of the 26/11 coverage of the anti-terrorist operations in Mumbai. Or for that matter the live coverage of the Kargil war by some overenthusiastic journos who put the lives of jawans and officers in peril.
It also re-emphasises the need for journalists covering such pandemics to be trained in public health communication. The UNICEF in collaboration with Oxford University, Thomson Reuters Foundation and Indian Institute of Mass Communication had designed India’s first such course emphasizing on evidence based reporting, a couple of years back and had trained journalists from many print media houses. It’s time that scribes from TV and digital platforms too are trained through online mode, if need be, to prevent recurrence of fatal mistakes in the future.
The author is a senior journalist and communication specialist. He is currently serving as Dean, School of Mass Media, University of Petroleum & Energy Studies (UPES), Dehradun. He is also Emeritus Professor at the Apeejay Institute of Mass Communication, New Delhi & Hony Professor with Apeejay Stya University. Earlier, he has served as Director General, Indian Institute of Mass Communication; Senior Consulting Editor with Doordarshan News; Editorial Consultant with Asianet News Network; Chief Political Correspondent with Press Trust of India and Group Media Advisor to Dalmia Bharat Enterprises Ltd.
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