The Independent Student Newspaper of Ashoka University

The Threat to Journalistic Integrity in Times of Crisis

By Sanya Chandra (Class of 2021)

The media plays an integral part in Indian society by being the fourth pillar of democracy. This entails the responsibility of acting as a bridge between the government and the people; being an enabler for feedback and exposure and most importantly being providers of critique of government actions and policies. This purpose is especially critical to the healthy functioning of a democratic order when crisis strikes; when under the garb of national security, anything flies. This integral influence of the media houses has been heavily abused in the light of the Pulwama attacks.

The media incessantly used fake news to scare the public and increase the anti-Pakistan sentiment amidst the masses. This information is further skewed over whatsapp forwards and incoherent social media posts which increase the spread of misinformation in the country. Further, the lack of objectivity in asking the right questions with regards to the attacks leaves a lot of arbitrary space for hateful, war-mongering entities to fill in themselves with falsehoods that will scare the public opinion into an anti-Pakistan direction. Further, the deliberate dramatisation of events such as the capture of Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman create a degree of paranoia amidst the masses that can result in violent outbursts as seen in the anti-Kashmir protests lead by people in different parts of the country, most specifically Dehradun.

What is important for the media is to report the truth as accurately as possible and acknowledge when no information can be corroborated. Ethical journalism pursues the truth, as fluid as that concept may be, and is independent from cultural, religious or social constraints. This freedom is what enables media outlets not to be vehicles of propaganda. According to The Hindu’s A. S. Panneerselvan, “The difference between journalism and propaganda lies in the language that is used in reports.” The use of the word ‘martyr’ for a victim of ‘murder’ is one of the clearest examples of the same.

What follows from this discussion of the pursuit of truth, is the discourse of neutrality versus objectivity. While being neutrality allows you to give equal credence to the different sides of a particular story, being objective entails you to start at a neutral position and logically reach the truth. Impartial reporting does build trust and confidence, objective reporting goes a step further. Being objective as a media outlet is hence of paramount importance — before a decision is proclaimed as good, bad, victorious or shameful, it is important to understand what the decision itself encapsulated and who were the affected parties. Oftentimes, just to enhance their ratings by creating juicy headlines, media houses forget the nuances of objective journalism.

As TV media races to break the first headline or steer the news in a direction in accordance with their point of view, the focal point shifts to “pro” and “anti” Pakistan political figures and what they’ve said and done. Official policy is hardly ever brought under scrutiny. According to author and journalist David Devdas, there is a pressing need in Indian government to have a “cogent, clear and consistent” policy vis-à-vis Pakistan. This is but one instance of a lack of a real conversation about Pakistan in the public eye as it gets muted at the expense of flashy and provocative news bits by today’s media. In the absence of correct information to the people, our leaders get away with a lot of arbitrary actions that are not always good for the country.

Needless to say, the media exercises a lot of influence. A lot of the power that the media commands is because of its capability to form and alter opinions. It is up to anchors and writers to use this influence to instil the need for peace rather than further xenophobia and glorify violence. It becomes a source of concern when the media exercises a blatant lack of restraint when news channels and anchors push for a specific narrative, often in line with what the ruling government propagates. Case in point, Republic TV is one of the most widely viewed English TV channels in India. It reported a statement from former Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister, Mehbooba Mufti by calling the statement “Deplorable” in the title itself just to catch public eye. The article used a disdainful tone and phrases like “our Pulwama martyrs” to appeal the viewers ‘patriotic’ spirit. Moreover, Mufti’s praise of Imran Khan for diplomacy regarding the return of IAF’s Abhinandan Vardhaman was presented as a challenge to the nationalist nature of the leader rather than a statement of fact. Instances like these show that while patriotism is crucial, it mustn’t trump values like tolerance. Further, nationalism should not be stifled under the strict framework provided to us by the media and the government.

As illustrated in the Mufti example, media agencies often weave the “if you’re not with us, you’re against us” story. This narrative becomes especially dangerous in times of crisis, where the need to reassure scared people and objectively reporting incidents is so critical to public welfare. This black and white approach to journalism, with no room for describing the grey nuances, shapes public opinion for the worse — based entirely on misinformation and the media hype.

There is another side to the story of media’s negligence — it is becoming even more difficult to pursue ‘ethical’ journalism in a country like ours where journalists continue to face intimidation, bullying and a constant threat of wanton legal action. India’s rank in the 2018 World Press Freedom Index is 138 on 180 countries ranked. A legal mechanism to deter certain kinds of media isn’t even required when the threat of bodily harm, mainly from organisations supported by the ruling party and their affiliates, leads journalists to adopt a self-censored approach. For instance, Neha Dixit, a freelance journalist wrote an article for Outlook magazine about alleged child trafficking by members of the RSS, a Hindu nationalist organisation closely related to the BJP. She told the Washington Post, “The legal costs are a deterrent that unconsciously impose a kind of self-censorship”.

The only way to ensure journalistic integrity is hold the institution accountable in the public eye. This could be done by looking out for words like ‘rightly’, ‘justifiably’ or ‘wrongly’ in articles. The truth can be separated from bias by simply consuming news from different sources. Lastly, the most important aspect is to have an open mind — while biased articles are concerning, what is more concerning is the comments section below. When the mass group-thinks, bias becomes pervasive. Further, the public should be aware of the kind of dangers posited by the government over free and fearless journalism.

In light of this, it becomes the viewer/reader’s job to call out media outlets that use the threat of war to call for “revenge”, mobilise emotions and rake in profits. We live in a time where war begets war and there is a significant need to separate national interest from simply what sells. In today’s day and age, the dangers of abusing the media for instilling a war monger mentality can be fatal. These dangers can only be avoided when the media doesn’t produce prejudiced information and the audience doesn’t consume it. Further, free conditions should be made prevalent in the country which enable the fourth pillar of democracy to function without fear of lawsuits and other forms of intimidation.

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