The spread of social media is forcing the mainstream media to reconsider age-old practices. That was obvious from the way many publications reported on the riots in western Uttar Pradesh last week. For decades, newspapers refrained from identifying communities in a conflict so as to avoid fanning the violence. But as social media posts fill the void with rumour and conjecture, the wisdom behind the convention is now being questioned.

Last week, as the newspapers began to cover the conflict between Sikhs and Muslims in Saharanpur, adherence to the protocol was sketchy. The Indian Express referred to both sides as “communities” in the first two paragraphs of its story, but explicitly identified them further down. The Hindu called them "communities" on the front page, but named leaders and identified their religion on the inside pages. Other newspapers dispensed with the convention altogether.

“With the advent of mobile phones and technology, everything has changed," said KS Sachidananda, Resident Editor of the Malayalam Manorama and a member of the Press Council of India. "The print media is now the last to report on events, because of electronic and social media, and society has also evolved to be more open, so these things are reported now.”

This uneven application of the convention has been the source of some controversy over the last week.

Headlines Today’s Gaurav Sawant tweeted four posts complaining about the lack of “secular” outrage about the riots. Others on Twitter quickly turned it into a conversation about how the communities convention seems to only be applied when “minority communities”, in this case Muslims, are the aggressors.

“There are a lot of ethical issues and I don’t think the media has discussed this or managed to produce a proper code on how to cover conflicts, especially conflicts between communities,” said Geeta Seshu, a senior journalist who also studies the media. “There has been a debate about the fact that often one community has been at the receiving end and it’s not completely covered in that way.”

Sawant later deleted his tweets without making a comment on why he did so, but the questions about the journalistic practice that many see as outdated continued to fly around.

“This began in British times, because they didn’t want to get a law-and-order problem on their hands, so there was the convention of just saying one community and another,” said Darryl D’Monte, former Resident Editor of The Times of India and The Indian Express in Mumbai. "Back then, they wouldn’t even say majority and minority."

Press Council guidelines 

After Independence, newspapers in India continued to stick to the rule. Although it was never codified, the guidelines drawn up by the Press Council of India generally recommended restraint, which in most cases meant refraining from identifying communities and potentially adding fuel to the fire.

“While it is the legitimate function of the Press to draw attention to the genuine and legitimate grievances of any community with a view to having the same redressed by all peaceful, legal and legitimate means, it is improper and a breach of journalistic ethics to invent grievances, as these tend to promote communal ill-feeling and accentuate discord,” said the guidelines, which were laid down in the wake of religious riots in 1969.

Over time, the way in which the convention was followed slowly changed. Newspapers began to use the prefix "majority" or "minority" to refer to the conflicting communities, making it easier to identify who was being referred to. Later on, names of individual community leaders were used, another giveaway.

“It was very clearly that one did not name the community responsible, a lot of the other markers are left open,” Seshu said. "So while it was something that the media quite carefully maintained, I think there were other ways in which people got to know which was the community, which was the aggressor and which was affected."

Breaking with convention

In 1992, D’Monte took the decision to name the communities during the Mumbai riots, because of the one-sided nature of the conflict. “The chairman of The Times of India rang me and asked me why I was going against the convention, and I explained that these were extraordinary times which perhaps Mumbai had never witnessed in its past,” he said. “Authorities weren’t revealing the composition of the casualties, but I remember our reporter Meena Menon went to the hospitals and from the list of the dead she was able to say how many more Muslims were killed than Hindus.”

By the time television news expanded beyond government ownership later in the 1990s, everything had changed. Visuals of mosques or temples meant that the identity of the community in question could no longer be hidden by simply referring to a "place of worship" that had been attacked. Individuals making statements were clearly identified, and what they said could not easily be edited for sensitivity.

Besides, fast-paced newsrooms were focussing on breaking news first and considering ethical issues later. In some cases – most famously with two Gujarati newspapers during the 2002 riots – more partisan news outfits openly used their pages to encourage violence.

New protocol is necessary

Now, with social-media users getting to the scene of violence much before traditional outlets, the very idea of editorial restraint seems passe. What use is a newspaper calling them the “minority community” after photos have been flying around on Twitter for hours?

More pertinently, few journalists actually believe the convention is useful anymore, even if it were possible to prevent other media from revealing the information.

“I think we should be brave enough to face the facts and to clearly identify who is involved, because the casualties in many ways tell the story, no matter who is blaming whom,” said D’Monte. “Who pays the price for the riot, I think that tells the story. The truth should come out because it identifies the culprits, otherwise there is space for claim and counter claim. Now it is veiled, but it should always be revealed for the horror that it is.”

With print being the medium least likely to be responsible for fanning the flames of the conflict in a world full of text messages and TV, many would now like to see the convention being replaced by one where accountability is clearly established.

“My own view would be that we should try to be as accurate as possible, because being inaccurate in a situation like this is actually the main reason we would contribute to fueling of tensions,” Seshu said. “Rumour mongering is huge during riots and inaccurate coverage is absolutely huge, because journalists don’t verify what they’re writing and that causes more damage.”

Sachidananda said this could be one way to harness an aspect of news that often receives much flak: the tendency to sensationalise.

“Let  us expose society with all its warts so that corrective measures come," he said. "How long can you hide things? How long can you pretend things haven’t happened? This is a way to hold people accountable. There’s good cholesterol and bad cholesterol and just like that there is good sensationalism and bad sensationalism.”