Why the media has a duty to separate truth from untruth

Those in power must not be left unchallenged when they state a half-truth because millions of people will then accept it as fact.

ByKalpana Sharma
Why the media has a duty to separate truth from untruth
Shambhavi Thakur
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Srinath Yadav sells bananas on a pavement in Mumbai. Originally from Allahabad district in Uttar Pradesh, Yadav has lived on the same patch of pavement where he has had his stall for 20 years. He had no desire to return to Uttar Pradesh during the lockdown like others from his state, he told me.

"What would I do there?" he asked. Instead, he waited and then went back to selling bananas.

I asked him what he thought about the lockdown and the pandemic. His response was instant: "It's a conspiracy to kill off the poor.”

Yet, I countered, the poor still vote for the same people you’re now accusing. "They win only because the machines are fixed in advance," he stated with unflinching confidence. By "machines", he meant the electronic voting machines, or EVMs

So, where do people like Yadav get information that results in such opinions? He does not possess a smartphone, nor does he access social media. Perhaps he reads a Hindi newspaper, although I doubt it. In all probability, his information comes from fellow migrants, like the taxi drivers who mill around his stall.

This deep-seated suspicion about EVMs is nothing new. It came up again during the Bihar election with Tejashwi Yadav of the Rashtriya Janata Dal suggesting that there was something wrong because a large number of his party's candidates lost by narrow margins.

The EVM story echoes a similar distrust of mail-in ballots during the recent US presidential election. President Donald Trump claims he has not lost — though he has — and that there has been election fraud. And it’s not just him: millions of his followers believe the same.

How did this suspicion about mail-in ballots spread and become so entrenched as to virtually divide an entire nation and keep it in thrall while it waits to see whether the incumbent will concede defeat and make way for the new president?

That is a question that the US media is asking even as the Trump presidency limps to an end. And about how the US media has covered his four years in office. By focusing so closely on him, both by way of critical comment and praise, some are now wondering whether the mainstream media gave him what he wanted above all: more publicity and to remain the centre of attention.

Margaret Sullivan, the media critic at the Washington Post argued that the mainstream media "never quite figured out how to cover President Trump, the master of distraction and insult who craved media attention and knew exactly how to get it, regardless of what it meant for the good of the nation."

She wrote of how television gave live coverage to all his speeches and rallies, much as our media does here when it comes to the prime minister. But as a result, even the "misinformation", as she called it, in his speeches was able to "pollute the ecosystem". And, she added, "we took far too long to call his falsehoods what they often were: lies".

Sullivan also questioned the way the media treated both sides of a controversy as equal, even though one side indulged in lies. In an earlier era, she said, this might have been acceptable, but not in the Trump era.

Sullivan's analysis has more than a little relevance for our media even though the media in the US and here are different in many ways. The American media has the protection of the First Amendment that the Indian media does not. It is able to criticise and even lampoon the head of state, or any public figure, without fear of being charged with criminal defamation or sedition as happens here.

Yet, according to a detailed study of the US media by the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard, the mainstream media actually played a key role in amplifying the half-truths and lies that were made by the president either in his speeches or in his tweets.

The centre analysed 55,000 media stories that appeared online, five million tweets, and 75,000 posts on Facebook that referred to mail-in voting between March and August. This is the period when Trump had already begun to cast doubts on this type of voting, suggesting that it facilitated widespread voter fraud that has never been proven. But because the president said it, this was reported all across the country through various forms of media.

The conclusion, according to an article by Yochai Benkler in the Columbia Journalism Review in October, is:

"Contrary to most contemporary analyses of disinformation efforts in the American political-media ecosystem, our findings suggest that the disinformation campaign that has shaped the views of tens of millions of American voters did not originate in social media or via a Russian attack. Instead, it was led by Donald Trump and the Republican Party and amplified by some of the biggest media outlets in the country; social media played only a secondary, supportive role."

In the Indian context, there has been considerable discussion about the role of social media in spreading misinformation, or shaping public discourse on issues such as the elections, or the opposition parties, or civil society dissenters.

Is it possible that here too, the mainstream media — knowingly, as in the case of media houses that make no bones about being supporters of the BJP and Narendra Modi, or unwittingly, by those not beholden to any political group — has helped build Modi's profile and amplify the messages of the BJP?

Take, for instance, the latest ploy of the BJP to delegitimise its political opposition. Home minister Amit Shah has been widely quoted calling the People's Alliance for Gupkar Declaration in Jammu and Kashmir, or the Gupkar Alliance, as the "Gupkar gang" in the run-up to the District Development Council election that the PAGD has decided to contest. The very use of the term "gang" suggests notoriety and illegality.

While most of the English language press has been restrained in its headlines, the coinage is likely to find ready acceptance on television channels that have proven to be more propagandist than journalistic. In time, it could get the same currency as the "tukde tukde gang", coined to criticise student activists of the Jawaharlal Nehru University. Or, for that matter, "love jihad", which has surfaced once again as BJP-run states formulate laws that will restrict the constitutional right of men and women in this country to choose who they marry and what religion they practise.

There is a choice that media outlets can make, especially in the headline, as in the case of print. The Hindu headlined its report on Shah's speech: "Gupkar alliance an unholy global gathbandhan: Shah"; the Telegraph: "Amit Shah brands Kashmir alliance a ‘gang’"; Hindustan Times: "Shah aims at Gupkar Group on ‘foreign link’"; and Indian Express: "Calling Gupkar alliance a gang, Amit Shah says it and Congress will bring terror back". None of them used "Gupkar gang" in the headline, although it is mentioned in the copy.

A study of mainstream media in India is needed to understand, as in the US, the role it has played in perpetuating the narratives of the BJP. Another example is the way the media reports on the prime minister. His Diwali visit to the troops in Jaisalmer, for instance, would have been the subject of some mirth, as indeed it was on social media, given Modi's attire, and the fact that he was waving to no one in particular while riding on a tank in the desert. Instead, we heard poker-faced live reports on some television channels while pro-BJP channels had predictably glowing and adulatory reports.

Irrespective of the difference in tone or headline, the message that got through was precisely what was intended: the image of a leader who will fight off any invader on Indian territory. Forget minor details such as what really happened in Galwan during the recent incursion by Chinese troops. It is the image that is important. And it continues to work, as was evident in the recent elections in Bihar.

Just as the American media is questioning its reporting during the Trump era, the Indian media too must reconsider how it reports on political leaders.

A report that sets a standard for how to integrate reporting with fact-checking is this one by Scroll’s Rohan Venkataramakrishnan. He interrogated the widely reported statement made by Narendra Modi after the Bihar election, where he claimed that the BJP was the only party that increased its seats even after staying in power "for three terms". There's an obvious inaccuracy there, that Venkataramakrishnan called "plainly wrong", as the BJP was not in power for three consecutive terms in Bihar. The report also contested the assumption that the BJP's vote share has grown since 2015, because it has not.

Perhaps people do not read the fine print in newspaper reports. But it is worth doing it for the record rather than leaving it to specialised fact-check sites like AltNews to point them out.

If those in power go unchallenged when they publicly state half-truths, or untruths, they will continue to do so with impunity. And the result will be the acceptance by many millions of people that these untruths are indeed proven facts, as we are currently witnessing in the US.


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