A majority of people in multiple countries distrust the media. They are justified in doing so. In India, especially, the media is ‘biased’ on multiple counts, not just in political leaning, but going so far as to partially report or misreport big and small news. As a result, a false narrative is published and consumed by millions. And this seriously threatens Indian democracy.
Partial reporting and misinformation was evident with the coverage of the recent Delhi Riots. Untruthful narratives were not just seen in Indian media outlets but unfortunately also in major international mainstream media. Exactly how have these platforms sold an incorrect narrative? All have either distorted, outright lied, misquoted and/or even gone so far as cropped images. What’s more, in India these days, it seems that it is acceptable that mainstream media ridicules global pandemics and insults national leaders.
Take, for instance, a recent article on the nomination of the Chief Justice of India to the Rajya Sabha. ‘Kovind, not Covid, did it,’ read the title on the front page. It was not the article but the headline that sent tremors of anger among citizens across social media. The first thing wrong with the title was that it downplayed a global pandemic with a pun. The author’s attempt at wittiness failed miserably by mocking coronavirus. It was even worse that the article had nothing to do with coronavirus. Even if it did, it is absolutely unacceptable to create a quip out of a sensitive worldwide contagion. Citizens and leaders are going so far as to socially isolate themselves. Stock markets are plunging. Workplaces are shutting down. The Centre has issued an order for no public gatherings. The number of cases of coronavirus continues to rise as does fear and paranoia across the planet. Certainly not something for media to make fun of.
The second thing they got wrong was insulting a national leader. As a journalist myself, of course I have objectively criticised national figures and issues in my articles. This is part of the job for every journalist and this is what makes media sell. But since when are insulting the President of India and comparing him with a global pandemic considered ‘free speech’? It’s malicious, derogatory and an outright caste-ist slur. President Ram Nath Kovind is a well-respected leader coming from a Dalit background. In fact, he is the second Dalit leader to become the Commander-In-Chief of the Indian Armed Forces and the Head of State. He is also the first leader from Uttar Pradesh to attain the highest constitutional position of India.
His beginnings? Born in a mud hut and the youngest of five siblings. Belonging to the Kori caste; a caste considered underprivileged even among the Dalits. He walked close to 10 kilometres one way to attend school because he didn’t have a bicycle.
From these meagre beginnings, Kovind serves the nation today. His story is inspirational and moving. A poor boy from a village near Kanpur rises and becomes the 14th President of India, working assiduously for the people of India. A leader who embodies equality in society and integrity in public life. President Kovind is also one of the most popular Indian leaders on social media with close to eight million followers on Twitter, over five million on Facebook and one million on Instagram.
With just one cheap shot title, the paper not only insulted the President but also managed to undermine his inspirational professional journey. By the way, paper is published by a group which has been called out multiple times for their anti-establishment stand. The key question that then arises is what is the impact India faces with continued unethical reporting by media giants?
With recent events like CAA implementation and the Delhi Riots, mainstream media’s unscrupulous reporting has surely achieved one more thing besides selling a misinformed narrative to the world. It has caused exponentially increased communalism and caste alienation among the Indian masses. This is why, in 2020, it is not uncommon to hear the refusal of employment, services and/or even rental accommodation from persons of one community to another. Vote banks still exist. Communal digs are thrown without a second thought as a means to gain more hits and likes for individuals’ social media platforms. Casteism continues to create disunion.
Despite this, mainstream media continues to shamelessly insult, chinwag and make things up for profit. It continues to create clickbait for more hits, likes and shares. It finds no shame in making up sensational headlines, insults national leaders for no objective reason, resorts to outright lying to make a more dramatic story and finds no dishonour in publishing a partially and/or misreported narrative.
Although the Press Council of India has taken note of the satirical headline on the President, more stringent measures need to be taken with all mainstream media. If journalism continues the way it is going in India, we are undoubtedly headed towards turbulent times with perilous costs. The merger of technology with media will regularise fake reporting through new avenues like morphed videos.
Instead of being a fundamental pillar of democracy, media will become a deceitful, distrustful and dangerous institution to the country. Communal and caste divisions will only increase. In a diverse nation like India, this has severe impacts. Disrespect, distrust, hatred, division, hurt, damage and fatality to innocent citizens at a large scale. Real world damage and division caused by incorrect reporting of the Delhi riots took no time at all to wreak havoc. The insulting headline towards President Kovind sparked national debates on casteism on social media.
It is about time for mainstream media to really think about how to sell objective reporting. That is, if they are vested in the progression of the country. We live in times where bad news sells. But it is only the media and funders of these media platforms that can completely change this around. Stop the incorrect reporting. Ban fake news. Make it not okay to insult leaders without any objective cause. The misinformation is creating alienation, ignorance and misinformed extremism among the people. It won’t be long before Indian democracy completely falls apart.
(The author is an alumna of Harvard University, The London School of Economics and Political Science, and University of Southern California. Views expressed are personal.)