Editors like to say that news reports must give the facts, opinion pieces must provide analysis. It is not as clear-cut as that. The words used in a report and the headline that is given can together implant an opinion in the reader’s mind.

This was brought home to me when a reader, who is also a journalist, pointed out the problem with the headline of this news report published on Scroll.in on July 21: Rajasthan: Mob lynches man on suspicion of cow smuggling in Alwar District.

There are two problems with this headline, which seems to have been used by many publications, presumably because they all depended on the same agency report.

One problem is that it conveys that there was reason to believe (“suspicion”) that the man, Rakbar Khan, was taking cows to slaughter (“smuggling”). The second is that it conveys the view that if the suspicion was correct, then he was punished for the crime, the only problem being that the mob took the law into its hands.

“Conviction by the media after his murder,” wrote the reader, who complained about the headline. I would agree.

We are in a situation where individuals and groups are drawing on hate to inflict extreme harm on fellow citizens. Publications have a special responsibility in not strengthening prejudice that feeds this hate. They need to be extra-careful about how a report is framed and the headline chosen. In many cases and for most readers, the story is told in the headline.

What would have been an appropriate heading here? “Cattle trader murdered by a mob in Alwar” or, better still, “Vigilantes lynch cattle trader in Alwar” tells you the facts. No “suspicion” of “cow smuggling” here. And the family of Rakbar Khan would not have to prove to the community that the dead man that he was innocent.

This is not the first time such headlines have been used, and unless Scroll.in and others are careful, it will not be the last.

Somewhat surprising, given the Rajasthan government’s silence and indifference towards such incidents in the past, the tweet of the state’s chief minister, Vasundhara Raje, was far bereft of any slant compared to the news reports put out by publications around the country:

You can quarrel about the “alleged” here, but there is no “suspicion” about any “smuggling”. Just the facts without any aspersion cast on Rakbar Khan.

Fake news, really?

Framing headlines and reporting the news accurately is one thing, being careful about the facts chosen or images used is another. This month, Scroll.in faced fire on social media for having erroneously chosen a photo of an attack on a temple in Pakistan to illustrate the post-December 1992 violence in India. This was in a video on the Babri Masjid case, published on July 18. When the error was pointed out on social media, the image was replaced and an apology given.

While Scroll.in does need to be extra-careful in choosing its images for stories on important issues, what was strange was that the publication was, in using this image, pilloried for propagating “fake news”. Strange, because this was a straightforward journalistic error in the photo chosen. Nothing was conveyed or sought to be conveyed other than to illustrate the fact that there was violence during and after the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992 (which is a fact that no one can dispute).

The motivation of these critics seems to be something else. Since they do not like Scroll.in’s journalism and claim (wrongly, in my view) that it is biased, they pick on an error and claim it is “fake news”.

What is “fake news” anyway? It means different things to different people who interpret it according to their convenience. Originally, it was meant to describe a deliberate falsification of news to push a particular point of view. Both were important – falsification and tendentiousness. A second and more recent usage is to besmirch any news you do not like as “fake news”. United States President Donald Trump routinely describes all news he does not agree with as “fake news”. A third usage seems to have been invented by trolls of Scroll.in: describe straightforward and honest errors in reporting and framing as “fake news”. The intention is to attribute motives to the errors and show that Scroll.in is biased.

If you ask me, this is just faking of criticism to present it as “fake news”.

A larger issue is may be it is time we stop using the term “fake news” altogether. Indeed, there is an informed view that use of this term is doing harm and we should call lies just that – lies.

Journalism errors

While Scroll.in’s wrong choice of an image for the video on the Babri Masjid case was regrettable, it has become an occasion to dig up past errors as well – when the larger story is not to one’s liking.

Soon after the video on the Babri Masjid case was attacked, a video from way back in April was pulled out for criticism on social media. What was the video about? It summarised new research on the genetic map of Indians, suggesting that we are the descendants of a number of groups of peoples from both hunter-gatherers in South Asia as well as from peoples in West and Central Asia. Research that rebuts the view that Indians have always been native to India and confirms elements of an “Aryan invasion” is, of course, not to the liking of some groups. Hence, this dissection of the April video.

It was pointed out that one image chosen to portray hunter-gatherers in India is not from ancient India but is an image of a scene of a hunt on a vase from ancient Greece, from 550-575 BCE. Yes, the video at two places does use this image, and at the second place it situates it on a map to represent events in the north-western part of South Asia.

Scroll.in’s editors say the image “was used to depict the idea of ancient hunter-gatherers rather than to prove that it was clinching evidence of the existence of hunter-gatherers in South Asia”. Perhaps. But I do think this image should not have been used, certainly in the second instance and perhaps not even in the first, for it does convey that it is a representation of hunter-gatherers in the region.

But again, this is just an error of journalism. Nothing more, nothing less. One does not have to read to attribute motives. If the conclusions of the larger story about the antecedents of Indians are not to one’s liking, let us examine the facts there and not quibble over the choice of images.

Readers can write to the Readers’ Editor at readerseditor@scroll.in