The golden age for stealing someone’s glory when it came to the results of competitive examinations was before the internet. The three stages of the prestigious civil services examination conducted by the Union Public Service Commission, spread over a year, offered three chances to pretenders, or even impostors, to hide behind the anonymity of roll numbers of successful candidates. Such fakery was aided by the fact that until recently the results of both preliminary and main stages of the exam carried only roll numbers, whereas for the final results names of successful candidates were also published. The latter was thus a happy hunting ground for namesakes looking for a slice of reflected glory.
The pretender, impostor or namesake benefitted not only from being the enviable centre of attention in their social circle, they also became a prized catch in matrimonial matchups. Back then, the absence of tools to instantly verify such claims, limited number of long-distance trains and few air travellers made gullible matchmakers more vulnerable to such fraud. A journey to Dholpur House on Shahjahan Road in Delhi, which houses the UPSC, wasn’t easy for the most awestruck neighbours or matchmakers who fell for the fiction of a would-be bureaucrat living in their sight. Even claiming to have passed one stage of the exam and not being selected finally was good enough to be seen as a bright prospect for future attempts.
The arrival of the internet facilitated quick verification of claims and the expansion of long-distance transport facilities made even Delhi visits more feasible, yet the fakery only became more risky, not extinct. This is evident from news reports continuing to tell us about namesakes and impostors making fraudulent claims and making sizeable numbers of people believe them.
But what if a newspaper becomes a victim of such false claims? That’s what happened on January 28, when Bangalore Mirror published a frontpage human interest story. It was about how Madhu NC, a Bangalore Metropolitan Transport Corporation bus conductor, had overcome great odds to crack the main stage of the UPSC’s civil services exam. The results of the main exam were declared on January14. Besides describing the tough study schedule Madhu had to keep, the report explained how he was being helped by his seniors, including the managing director of the BMTC, to prepare for the interview, the last stage of the exam.
This is how Ravi Joshi, editor of Bangalore Mirror, promoted the story.
Two days later, the paper realised it had been misled into believing the false claims. The editor then tweeted out an apology.
Subsequently, the paper took down the story from its website. Between these two developments, social media was flooded with laudatory posts on the steely resolve of the bus conductor and how it was the inspirational spark the youth needed.
Two aspects about Bangalore Mirror’s obvious blunder need attention. One is rooted in the social psyche of news consumption as well as gullibility in news gathering. The other is related to lapses in basic fact-checking.
A few minutes checking the UPSC website would have directed the reporter to a notice dated January 14 which contained names and roll numbers of all those who had cleared the main exam of 2019, and thus received the interview call. The roll number that Madhu NC claimed to be his belonged to a candidate called Madhu Kumari. While lazy reporting and editorial lapses in fact-checking are visible here, this also poses the question of why news consumers and news gatherers are gullible to exaggerations or even falsehoods when it comes to such feelgood human interest stories?
This is where the other aspect of this piece of misreporting becomes important. News platforms cater to a readership of an aspirational society, where a class-changing success in an exam like that for the civil services is a happy story of social mobility. Now, if supplemented with an empowerment tale – say of a bus conductor cracking the exam – the story becomes a heady blend of social mobility and individual fight against social barriers. That’s the stuff newsrooms, more so those of the print media, are looking for in human interest stories.
While there’s nothing wrong in pursuing such positive stories of achievement and of fighting against the odds, journalists have to be careful about the pitfalls of confusing potentially edifying tales with factually sound ones. Claims made by ordinary citizens should invite as rigorous scrutiny as those by people in positions of power and influence. Moral assumptions about the subject of a news story shouldn’t stand in the way of the journalistic process. There have been numerous occasions when a feelgood story, based on dubious claims, has found its way to the media, only to be debunked later – much to the amusement of all, if not disillusionment.
Such gullible pieces of reporting weave in folk lores while glorifying their subjects. One common ropetrick of this form of reporting is the projection of child prodigies. In fact, the comic extent to which such projections can go Manu Joseph’s debut novel Serious Men. The trigger for the novel was Joseph’s insights into how a so-called child prodigy Tathagat Avtar Tulsi and his father, subjects of many news reports in the 1990s and early years of this century that declared the child a science genius, had conned the Indian media as well as academics.
More recently, an Indian teen’s claim about being selected for the prestigious Goddard Internship Program at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in the US was covered glowingly by various sections of the Indian media. It wasn’t long before NASA denied the claim.
There has been no dearth of such reports in India’s national and vernacular press. What’s been missing is journalists prioritising the verification of claims while filing the moving human interest story.
The belief in positive stories of gradual improvement in lives around us, as famously advocated in contemporary times by thinkers such as Steven Pinker, is important and understandable. To an extent, human interest stories seek to do so by weaving real tales of individual slices of life, struggle, fortitude, and attainment. However, even this purpose would be better served by grounding them in real tales of human condition, and not falling for someone’s urge to have the dubious joy of media attention.