“Our free media, including our largely unfettered press, are a hugely important asset for democratic India,” Amartya Sen wrote in 2012.
But what happens when the media starts publishing misinformation?
On 30 January, Republic TV aired a report about a ‘Jamia protester’ shooting at a group of other anti-CAA protesters near Jamia Millia Islamia University.
Here’s a quick recap: A 17-year-old miscreant fired a shot at a group of protesters near Jamia Millia Islamia, and within minutes, the English news channel ran a bulletin blaming the protesting students for the violence. The channel’s political editor and anchor went on to suggest that the shooter was encouraged by the Aam Aadmi Party and the Congress’ Rahul Gandhi. It added that this was the ‘real face of anti-CAA protests’.
The channel issued an apology later, but this was done after it ran the false report for almost six hours.
This is just one example of how a mainstream media organisation was caught spreading misinformation, but what’s the reason behind this?
Speaking to The Quint, Manisha Pande, Executive Director at Newlaundry.com, said, “There is a section of media that spreads deliberate misinformation but it’s also a problem of basic inefficiency. I think viewers and readers need to start demanding channels to be careful, issue corrections and just better quality.”
Fake News to Feed Propaganda?
In December 2019, when the anti-CAA protest was at its peak, students of Jawaharlal Nehru University and Jamia Millia Islamia University were thrashed by the police. The students had that the Delhi cops entered the college and beat them up.
These protests have been majorly considered anti-establishment as the citizens are against the Citizenship law citing religious discrimination.
On 16 February, Jamia Coordination Committee, a body comprising of students and alumni, released a footage to corroborate the claim. But the police was quick to respond by releasing another footage to show students carrying stones and entering the Old Reading Hall of the university.
Now in the middle of this, multiple media houses picked up one picture of a student who was allegedly seen carrying stone in his hand.
Fact-checking website AltNews analysed the video frame-by-frame and found out that the student was actually carrying his wallet. Whether the students carried stones or not it is a matter of investigation, but targeting a student based on a lie is what misinformation does.
In another incident related to the anti-CAA protest, media organisations like News18 Hindi, Mail Today slammed Bhim Army Chief for flouting court orders and visiting Jama Masjid upon his release from the jail. Azad was taken into custody in connection with the violence during the anti-CAA protests in Old Delhi’s Daryganaj.
Former journalist and author of the book, ‘The Indian Newsroom, Studio, Stars and the Unmaking of Reporters’, Sandeep Bhushan, says we have a situation where the media is ‘tied to the state power’.
"“The ownership structure is such that promoters are tied in a relationship of client to the all powerful state. This could be on account of their dependence on the government for licence or on account of their interests in non-media space that makes them vulnerable. This makes it almost nearly impossible to antagonise government of the day.”" - Sandeep Bhushan, Author
Bhushan also added that, there is “no media push back in India, which makes it easier for even ministers to peddle fake news”.
Fake Claims to Toe the Govt’s Line?
In August 2019, the central government revoked the special status of Jammu and Kashmir and bifurcated the state. After the decision, multiple news including Times Now, Republic TV reported that normalcy has returned to the erstwhile state and that the people in Kashmir were happy with the government’s decision.
But contrary to these reports, multiple news outlets showed visuals of violence from Jammu and Kashmir. The Quint’s Poonam Agarwal too had travelled to Kashmir to verify the government’s claim of normalcy but found the situation to be far from normal.
In fact, the Ministry of Home Affairs had first denied any reports of violence, but later, they too admitted that protests broke out in Soura in Kashmir during the Eid prayers.
In another instance, multiple media organisations, including Firstport and Zee Uttar Pradesh Uttarakhand, applauded the government for the Balakot airstrikes and misreported that the Indian Air Force had released the video of the airstrikes. While in reality it was a promotional video.
Might be an inadvertent error, but this too adds to the false narrative built around an issue.
The footage was particularly relevant as multiple questions were raised about the success of the airstrikes. But the government always maintained its stand that the strikes had inflicted ‘several damage’.
Pointing the structural issues of the media houses, Bhushan said, “tThe breaking news culture is a madness and in order to satiate a 24x7 news cycle, news networks often rely on news agencies and the social media for news content, which have been caught purveying fake news.”
Creating Fear and Panic
The human impact of misinformation is often ignored by the media and such reports have impacted individuals and created fear and panic.
On 13 February, several media organisations claimed that two people in Kolkata, both of whom had arrived from Bangkok, had tested positive for coronavirus. The information was first flagged by news agency PTI, which corrected the information, but irrespective of that, news outlets such as Moneycontrol, The Print, Business Insider and Outlook continued to run the story.
In this case, Himadri Barman the individual who was identified as the one tested positive for coronavirus, said that he had to undergo a lot of trouble due to the incorrect information.
“My test results came on Thursday morning and I was allowed to leave," Barman told The Quint, having received clearance from the hospital. However, he said that he was shocked to find that media reports on Thursday afternoon had carried news of him having tested positive, even leading him to doubt his own test results.
In most of these instances, the channels/outlets have not issued a clarification or updated the story with the correct version.
The Way Forward?
Bhushan suggests that it is important for the news organisation to have a user-generated desk which can monitor content on social media.
“Media houses need self-regulation, other than stricter broadcasting regulations to tackle the problem of fake news. Also, with more reporters to verify the information,” he added.
Another media expert, Vanita Kohli Khandekar, says “TV news is beyond repair”, but that we need solutions to fix this problem.
“I would suggest three basic solutions: incentivise not-for-profit media ownership models, allow Doordarshan to be free — A good, independent public service broadcaster is not just a good source of news but also a deterrent for private broadcasters — and allow more foreign direct investment.”
She also added that media literacy and news literacy will go a long way in solving the problem of fake news.
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