Misinformation and Mainstream Media
The recent spate of violence in various parts of the country and outside, as well as the volatility that persists in the wake of those incidents has raised a lot of questions. The role of the mainstream media in dealing with this crisis is one of them. The media response to such a situation seemed not only amateurish, but also quite callous. The mainstream media appeared to be a mere reflector of political aspirations in the exact form as they exist in our system. In this context, the primary role of the media as an entity responsible for the dissemination of information appeared to be thrown to the backburner, and political posturing appeared to be the real agenda.
This is an overall viewpoint, and exceptions do exist. But, the exceptions should not be cited as an excuse for the general trend. In fact, the media after 2002 Gujarat riots has almost considered under-reporting of communal riots as a rule of the thumb. The general argument given in favor of such an argument is that the reporting of communal riots may disseminate information to various parts of the country very quickly. This information can be then used by anti-social elements for the further propagation of riots. This is a simple logic, and may appear quite infallible.
However, if one has to seriously consider the effects of under-reporting or partial reporting in the mainstream media, this attitude of restraint has appeared to be more harmful and dangerous than the attitude of investigative reporting. Though, another allegation that has been raised is the accountability of the media is directed more towards the political parties and funding entities than the actual people. However, that is an entirely separate matter which has incidentally been a part of another raging debate.
Rumors and misinformation went viral over the internet. The biggest way in which misinformation has to be countered is by providing sufficient information that would immediately break the back of this shameless rumor-mongering. Our national media by partial reporting of the riots in the name of restraint allowed the misinformation to grow and take a shape which resulted in the exodus of people from one part of the country to the other. The “mental block” in the media of the remoteness of the places like Assam, as confessed by senior journalists, has also been a factor; however this cannot be the sole reason for such under-reporting. We know almost nothing about the riots in Bareilly, which has made it possible for many to believe in misinformation as a substitute for information. All this indicates some deeper malaise that has crept into the system.
What cannot be denied is that a more result-oriented media did not consider this to be an issue at all in the first place. So deep is the callousness of the media that an Editor-in-Chief of a news channel which claims to be the best in the country like many others, remarked that the number of dead bodies would be the sole determinant of media coverage. By, that logic not many people had died in Assam so that coverage could be expected. Although he later apologized, he expressed the callousness with which media treats issues of grave national importance.
The actual social circumstances which led to the riots have been dissected by various commentators on earlier occasions. Post-analyses of the situation by educated experts based on various inputs from the ground have been done. Indeed, even in mainstream media we have found some detailed discussions on the riots as a part of some form of post-analysis.
However, the problem arose from the real-time reporting (or selective/non-reporting) by the television media. What is the need for censoring the news of riots themselves for days till they have acquired a more violent form, partly also because of the lack of proper information? When the mainstream media does not provide sufficient information, or provides selective information, they are the main reasons where a void gets created, and people start trusting unauthorized information in the form of internet posts or SMS’s. The mainstream media should have realized that blacking out reporting of riots in various places not only prevents propagation of information, but also adds fuel to people who want to propagate misinformation.
Mainstream media has the ability provide authentic, non-partisan news to the people so that in a situation where clarity is obviously non-existent, they at least have some credibility. Media, by pandering to the established political positions have only reduced their credibility. The vacant space has been occupied by social media, whose users obviously do not have the sense and experience of journalism and reporting as an editor of a news channel is expected to have. Indeed, parallel to that, media has shown remarkable unprofessionalism in their attempt to report the news of exodus of citizens from one part of the country to the other.
The mediocrity of media-persons and the utter lack of attachment towards the noble and once-respectable profession are evident from the blatant under-reporting. This might be for many reasons, one of it being a sense of fear of the establishment, which obviously does not want the truth to come out. Obviously, one cannot expect the integrity of media houses that was seen in the 1980s when journalists who had exposed the establishment during the Bofors scam risked their personal well-being; in some cases even after repeated threats from different quarters.
Truth takes a much larger amount of time to propagate than lies. Thus, in the absence of truth being told out to people, lies and rumors won over actual information. The real manner in which lies have to be countered is not by hiding the truth itself, but by propagating it in a non-partisan manner. The inability of the media to propagate information to counter this misinformation is evident.
Leave alone the media, there was no attempt to quell rumors from the part of the government machinery in the first place. There was no attempt to counter misinformation with information. As a panelist pointed out in one of the TV channels itself, the government has enough resources on its part to publish full-page advertisements on birthdays, but not in order to quell rumors. Later, the Government of India reacted in quite an arbitrary, unprofessional manner, even blocking twitter handles of not only journalist critics but also the website of a Pakistani writer who had launched an attempt to counter misinformation with information. Thus, rather than misinformation, sources of information were targeted. One cannot but be angered by the lack of seriousness that has crept in both in the media and the establishment. What happens in the media has almost become a corollary of what happens in the government!
This is indicative of a crisis of sorts. The mainstream media has lost its credibility; even to an extent that social media, filled with arbitrary unverified information has taken over. Given the vulnerability of information in social media, the government as well as the media has chosen the wrong way, sometimes unwittingly, and sometimes deliberately. A lesson lies for everyone to learn, including us who use the social media. But, the mainstream media and the government will continue to remain blind, as they are always seen knocking the doors of some fool’s paradise to hide their faces. This development is dangerous for the safety and security of common citizens of this country.