Indian journalism continues to be as much in the news as it is for reporting news. Whether it is television, print or online, journalism is in a permanent flux. The nature and pace of change are different in each form of the media – perhaps going the furthest in television. But everywhere, the media is very different from what it was five years ago, perhaps even a year or two ago.
Conventions on how to report and what to report are being modified all the time. The media’s relationship with advertisers is also continuously changing, giving more and more power to the advertisers. The relationship with the reader or viewer (who, with the dominance of advertising in the media, is now called the “consumer of news”) has been transformed as well. The first instinct of the reader/viewer is not to trust but be suspicious of a publication, a story and a journalist. “What is the motive?” “What is the bias?” These are the questions the reader/viewer seems to first ask.
At the same time, the media retains the power to influence public opinion. Political groups are forever looking to see how they can use it to control their message.
Some would call these exciting times for the media. Change and ferment are interesting to study, but they can also be disturbing when the nature of change is for the worse and not the better.
Through the Looking Glass will occasionally look at these ongoing changes. It will seek to explore the implications of these changes for readers/viewers as also for the journalists themselves.
Reporters and religious identities
Last month, a troubling change in the relationship between the reporter and the reported was noted.
Scroll.in has been running an interesting series, “The Backstory”, giving reporters a chance to speak about how they covered events. Some of these “stories behind the stories” have brought out quirky details.
There have also been disquieting details.
Two reporters, TA Ameerudheen and Rayan Naqash, write of threats to them during their reporting assignments because their names announce they are Muslims by birth. When covering communal violence in coastal Karnataka, Ameerudheen writes of being confronted by an angry Hindu mob that insists on knowing his name. Naqash writes of facing similar and even greater hostility while covering violence by gau rakshaks in Jammu, because he was easily identified as a Kashmiri Muslim.
Both Ameerudheen and Naqash “escaped”, both were asked by the police to leave town because their safety could not be ensured, both speak candidly of spending the night in hotel rooms fearing the worst. The one placing furniture against the door to prevent a break-in, the other afraid to answer even the waiter’s knock.
This marking of Muslim reporters is not a new phenomenon. Earlier it was neither a common occurrence, nor was it expressed openly; now it is both. Reporters with Muslim names have to navigate treacherous waters, especially (but not only) when reporting on communal violence.
“Your religious identity determines how you report events and how you analyse them; you will report only to advance the cause of ‘your’ religion.” This is the level of distrust that the citizen has come to have in the media. It is not based on facts, or from the experience of reading (and viewing) reports that are biased by the religious identity of the journalist. It is there in the reader/viewer because the larger atmosphere is one where majoritarianism and its more violent twin, anti-minorityism, has taken hold. Our identity is first decided on the religion of our birth.
Powerful political groups that stand to benefit electorally from polarising society drive such perspectives in the media.
The press has, however, played no small role in building up this phenomenon. Television news channels, more than print and online publications, have thrown all norms of integrity in journalism aside – another change in the Indian media – in their news broadcasts, which are often nothing more than screaming matches that target the Indian Muslim. The open demonisation of minorities that is de rigueur in many news channels in English and regional languages borders on a hysteria that is growing by the day because, for now, such journalism seems to sell.
It would be difficult to accept this as journalism, except that it seems to for the producers and viewers of these channels. None of the professional bodies in broadcast journalism have raised questions of the aggressive targeting of Indian Muslims on these channels.
WhatsApp and fake news
The media is in part driven by competition from social media, or more specifically by what we can call “WhatsApp journalism”. More than Facebook, Twitter or email lists, it is WhatsApp that is disseminating what the readers themselves now consider news. Fiction is created and disseminated at a speed that publishers would envy. Sometimes it is packaged crudely, sometimes with great sophistication. No matter, the words and images are chosen for their effectiveness. These sometimes have the most extreme of consequences – violence and riots.
One can hazard a guess that most of the political stories that get circulated on WhatsApp are fake. Yet, because of the power of the message they convey and because these messages are consistent with a narrative that has been assiduously cultivated over the years, they receive an unbelievable amount of traction.
It is this information being circulated on WhatsApp that is gradually becoming a more trusted source of news than the mainstream outlets. Some political forces also embrace the WhatsApp channel for this very reason. They can anonymously put out aggressive political messages they cannot be directly associated with or questioned about. This is also effective because such so-called news is not mediated by the checks and balances of mainstream journalism.
In India, a small group of independent researchers (such as Altnews.in and SM Hoax Slayer) regularly work at exposing fake news of the kind spread through WhatsApp. They succeed most of the time in exposing this for what it is, but the avalanche is not something a group of dedicated workers can stop on the hill side. In any case, it is a matter of a few minutes before a piece of fake news spreads and takes hold through WhatsApp. Subsequent exposures cannot undo the damage.
It is now a huge challenge for mainstream media to assert that its journalism is more authentic and the news on WhatsApp is not. It does not have the weapons the purveyors of fake news have: speed, ease of transmission, a disregard for nuance and a contempt for facts. Instead of continuing the fight, some outlets – on television again – have chosen to do exactly what is done via WhatsApp: set up caricatures, refuse to check facts and feed prejudice.
Reporters have to work in an atmosphere that has already been poisoned. The lives of reporters are in some danger because the larger environment is one where the dominant political forces benefit by stoking prejudice, even hate.
So these are hardly exciting times. They are difficult times for journalists. They are equally difficult times for us readers/viewers of news.
The Readers Editor can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org