‘Sources’ and when they make the government look nice

'Sources' were given free rein during Balakot but rules change when it comes to the government’s misadventures and the Rafale deal.

ByMeghnad S
‘Sources’ and when they make the government look nice
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We’ve seen some intense cross-border action in the past few weeks. On February 25, India retaliated for the Pulwama attack by executing an air strike across the Line of Control at Balakot. While the Armed Forces were deftly and efficiently doing their job, the cacophony that erupted within our country was deafening. Leading this shrill banshee-like noise were some of our news channels who burnt out their own neural noodles and attempted to inflict the same mental damage on their viewers.

How? Allow me to demonstrate with the efficient use of GIFs.

Here’s Aaj Tak dramatically displaying how … uh … planes took off?

Here’s an Aaj Tak anchor pretending to be Godzilla.

Here’s ABP News projecting the greatness of our Prime Minister Adarniya Narendra Modiji.

I mean, I don’t understand why the Bharatiya Janata Party is bothering to spend money on ad campaigns when they have ABP News’s design team doing it for them. For free.

Here’s ABP News commenting on Pakistan PM Imran Khan’s dress code through the efficient use of an emoji.

While other channels had one or two graphics running individually, India TV’s graphics team created so many of them that they couldn’t decide which one to use.

So they used all of them. At once.

Zee News was like: “Hey, it’s a Tuesday. A mangalwar. It has ‘war’ in it so let’s just pun on it! Slap in a flying plane, drop bombs. And, voila!”

These are just some samples of how batshit crazy our news media went. But, as a responsible news consumer, there were more worrying signs than just graphic designers and headline writers letting their testosterone-filled brains run wild. Particularly, the use of “sources”.

Journalists get their information from sources. Some of these sources don’t want themselves to be named and give this information on the condition of anonymity. They do so because they’re afraid of the pushback they’ll get from the powers that be and a journalist lets them maintain anonymity to protect them for this pushback. A journalist’s primary is job to check, cross-check and verify this information before putting it out. She also has to make sure that the information being put out is in public interest.

This whole sourced-information dynamic becomes critically important during times of conflict—when information about the actions of the Armed Forces is tightly guarded and prevented from leaking out. For obvious reasons. In such scenarios, the journalist has to use their own experience and acumen to decide whether the source-based information they’re putting out is in public interest or not.

But, regardless of whether it’s conflict time or not, the accuracy of the information being put out still matters. Cross-checks and confirmations need to be done across the board.

Many in the media though, in the aftermath of the air strikes, seem to have let their imaginations run wild instead of fact-checking their sources. One instance of this was when multiple publications put out a story about a Pakistani pilot being lynched by their own people. What was it based on? A Facebook post by a random person from London. Yep. #TrueStory

It’s almost amusing that these publications cited “media sources” instead of just saying, “We got it on WhatsApp, OK? Just deal with it.”

Another instance would be about the wild, wild figures on the number of terrorists killed being thrown around. Multiple media channels reported different numbers and declared that it had been provided by “credible, highly-placed, authentic reliable, legit sources”. Even BJP President Amit Shah went around claiming that 250 terrorists were killed.

When a few stand-out souls in the media questioned elected functionaries about where they got these numbers from, either they retorted by questioning the patriotism of these journalists or, in one particular case, said that Shah had made an “intelligent guess” because he has a “right to free speech and expression”.

Our Air Force officials clearly and categorically put out that estimating the numbers would be premature and, frankly, they cannot, realistically, get a count of how many died due to the air strikes. But this clarification came after our media folks had already done their jingoist duties by wildly stating random numbers based on information given by “sources”. The damage was done.

Leave Balakot aside and let’s flip the coin.

Let’s talk about the other story that has been dominating the news for the past few days: the Rafale deal. The Hindu has consistently been putting out documents which raise questions on the Rafale deal made by the Modi government. N Ram, chairman of The Hindu Group, seems to have come out of retirement to lead this crusade. The Hindu acquired these documents and information about the deal from … wait for it … “sources”.

The government went to the extent of going to the Supreme Court and claiming that these documents cannot be used because they were “stolen” from the Defence Ministry and it’s a violation of the Official Secrets Act. Frankly, it’s no surprise that they pulled this little mutated rabbit out of their hats, but what’s interesting is how a section of the media is treating this particular story. Every little bit of information being put out by The Hindu is being cross-checked, countered, questioned and broken down.

In The Hindu’s case, the information provided by “sources” is either stolen and should not be used, according to the government, or is suspect and needs to be questioned, according to commentators. But why wasn’t the same treatment given to the source-based information being put out about the attacks? Why did jingoism and general excitement take over the moment India launched strikes against Pakistan?

To put two and two together, it’s becoming obvious that only the information that the government wants to be pushed out will not be scrutinised and questioned, even if the information is misleading and blatantly false. But the moment information about the government’s own alleged misadventures come out, it will be attacked with a razor-sharp, fine-tooth comb.

The question we, the news consumers, need to ask is: why aren’t the same standards being applied to each source-based information being put out?

Zee News pretty much summed up this phenomenon in one graphic-heavy headline:

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Complaining about the media is easy and often justified. But hey, it’s the model that’s flawed.

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