This article is written by Adyasha Das, pursuing a Certificate Course in Media and Entertainment Law: Contracts, Licensing and Regulations from LawSikho.
“The bigger the lie, the more people believe it”
Hitler’s Minister for Misinformation
Why are media houses resorting to using false narratives?
In the landmark case of Bennett Coleman v. UOI, the Hon’ble Supreme Court held that it was through the media that people discover the truth. But with the growing social media activities and Twitter becoming the first correspondent of most of the incidents that occur, mainstream media houses have taken a turn for the worse. In order to get the word out first, many big players of the mainstream media industry have resorted to publishing false and alternative narratives. A false narrative is a version of occurrence of events, which is partly true but has been shaped in a manner to incite strong negative emotions.
There has always been a competition between traditional media houses and digital media platforms to see ‘who reports the news first’ irrespective of the accuracy of information, which if at all, can be dealt with later. With inaccurate and insufficient information, the narrative gets highly complex and it becomes impossible for the public to differentiate between the real set of events and the one that has been conjured by the false narration. It is a human temperament to create and tell stories. From time immemorial, people have been communicating truth as they see it through writings, paintings and oral-storytelling. This generation resorts to social media to speak their perception of the truth or to seek truth.
With revenues of the media houses being controlled by political parties, a particular media house pushes the agenda enforced by the big conglomerates or political parties. Linking the Muslim group Tablighi Jamaat for spreading coronavirus is one such event where the entire profiling was wrong in itself. In a situation of pandemic where every country is experiencing such outbreaks, holding Tablighi Jamaat responsible for the outbreak was done with the motive to fuel growth of fake news. Facts were twisted, manipulated and changed. To promote a political agenda of Islamophobia, such narratives were spurt.
With private treaties with big conglomerates, traditional media grant easy access, disseminate propaganda of such big conglomerates by disguising false information as news and blocks pieces of news that might be detrimental to the image and interest of such conglomerates. For instance, in 2012, Zee News asked Naveen Jindal to fund their advertisements otherwise they would run negative news against his company. There occurs a selective transmission of information often leading to misinformation, which ultimately affects the credibility of the traditional media house. Media houses undermine the editors and the journalists by taking away their freedom to voice their opinion on something that isn’t in favor of the organization or any of its partners.
How can false and alternative narratives affect national integrity?
India is a highly populated and diverse country. With over 400 news channels, mainstream media houses have a huge impact on the people and their opinions. The media is not just the source for relaying information but also a medium of relaying one’s opinions. Along with that it is also a source that engenders communal prejudices, affecting the integrity of the nation. History has been a witness of the same. With the Mumbai riots in the late 80’s and 90’s, there was communal disharmony between Hindus and Muslims. Media was one of the reasons why such communal tension escalated. Newspaper articles, mainstream media reporting; all sources of relaying information were used to propagate communally inciting opinions, which were ignored by the law enforcement agencies. The media were acting as mouthpieces to the agenda of certain right wing political parties. Similar communal tensions have been flared in in the states of Gujarat, Assam, Karnataka and Odisha. The local media, during the 2002 Gujarat riots was seemingly biased against the Muslim population.
To such communal and religious biases, the public has shown extreme reactions in the past. An instance of this can be the attack on the Charlie Hebdo magazine that expressed satire on religion. With the CAA protests in 2019, there were floods of fake news travelling around. Members of BJP were found sharing a video that falsely insinuated that Aligarh Muslim University students were raising anti-Hindu slogans. Disinformation and misinformation surrounding Kashmir is widely prevalent. Pictures from Syrian and Iraqi wars have been passed off as pictures from the Kashmir conflict with the intention to fuel disharmony and unrest amongst the masses. Instances like these often lead one to think if the media is the medium to relay personal opinions as information; if there needs to be curbing of freedom of press against matters that hurt religious feelings or national integrity at large.
What is disheartening to see is that all the religions preach the same yet the media portrays them in different lights. The values of communal harmony in each of these religion is similar to one another, with Vasudhaiv Kutumbkam (Hinduism) meaning, “The world is one family”, Love thy neighbor (Christianity), take care of the community’s needs (Islam) etc. What makes the news is built up on some aspects of truth but then it is blown out of proportion by mixing falsehood to project the community in a negative light. The stereotypes and myths thus cast a shadow long enough to portray all people from the community to be the same.
The easiest way to combat such events is if the government takes a stand against it. Unfortunately, the government also has interest in such fake news and therefore, is often involved in deliberate generation of such narratives. If the government executives and leaders hold such narratives as false and untrue, it will be the quickest way of communication. But, in any country where there is a visible power struggle, this is far from reality. The next and only other way is through media platforms. But most of the media organizations are either sold out or follow the directions of the government; therefore, there is little scope of clarification that the media can provide. While there is room for independent journalism, the space is little. People expect the mainstream media to be such primary independent journalists but in the current day and age, journalists cannot survive on ethics and values.
Media houses of the other countries perpetuating biases
Mainstream media has been heavily criticized and accused of favoring communities based on religious biases. While some countries don’t report plights of minority religious populations, other countries make derogatory statements against certain religions. Mainstream news channels influence public perception of religions and cults. Mainstream media have often depicted minority religions in a negative light and have held them to be problematic and threatening to the security of the countries. False narratives have been spread by the media to promote political agenda and personal beliefs. When such allegations and narratives are proved to be untrue, it receives little or no media attention.
The U.S. media has been sunk to new lows over the past couple of years by sensationalizing race and religion. This increase in such biases in the mainstream media has led to missing media accountability for fostering such hatred and violence amongst the public. Racial and religious bias in criminal news reporting in the United States, particularly against African American and Muslim individuals promote the act of open discrimination amongst its citizen. Media Matters for America, a research center based in the United States to monitor spread of conservative misinformation, has criticized Fox News for frequent usage of racial undertones while covering news.
ABC News had also faltered in journalism when it portrayed the documentary on Philadelphia journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal with certain bias, which influenced a lot of opinions amongst the public. The ignorance with which the reporters take on a sensitive subject like religion, the reporting is generally relied on biased data and comes through as an insensitive act against minority religions. Further, malicious sources generate lies that form a barrier to truth. ABC’s senior anchor Peter Jennings has stated that in the majority of the newsrooms in America, there is an appalling ignorance of religion. The Atlantic has reported that around 68% of the Muslim women population in the U.S. find the media coverage of Muslim and Islam culture as unfair. There is a clear lack of connection between the media and the public when it comes to the subject of religion and what is required of the American journalists is honest coverage without any adulteration.
People have expressed concerns regarding the role of religion in the society and how the mainstream media portrays it. The All Party Parliamentary Group on Religious Literacy in the Media, aims at addressing religious literacy in both politics and media and foster better representation and understanding of religion in media. Unfair treatment of the Muslim communities by the journalists is a failing of the mainstream media. Media focuses on stories of ‘extremist’ Muslims while ignoring the stories surrounding the extremist Christians. For instance, Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik was never described as a Christian terrorist by the mainstream media. Christians denounced him quickly, describing his actions as non-religious and influenced by political agenda. Such generosity would not have been extended to someone who wasn’t Christian. The decision of a news coverage shall be shaped by cultural norms. There appears to be differences between religion and the mainstream media that can be resolved by recognizing the stories from both sides, instead of sticking to the cultural norm prevalent. Race is also something that leads to the media to differentiate between people in similar light.
In countries such as China, Myanmar and North Korea, the government influences the media and news is thus filtered to the masses through a sieve of censorships. Western media has criticized journalism prevalent in the rest of the world including the Middle East, Africa and Asia. Both the middle-eastern states and the West criticize Al-Jazeera. There is a media bias in every country. While some countries base the biases on race and religion, others base it on gender and language. Unfortunately little has been done by the government of such countries to combat such media biases that shatter the integrity of the nations.
Guidelines for media houses
One of the techniques that could be adopted by the media houses to avoid bias is a set-up of “round-table”. In this adversarial format of coverage, media houses can use this strategy to represent opposing views on the subject matter. This would allow diversity in perspective and might come across as non-prejudicial. Media houses should take on the responsibility to invite people with in depth knowledge and factual backing pertaining to their opinion of their subject matter and make sure that not by any means, there is a suggested winning/losing side. Such a format would benefit the audience in getting different viewpoints and see the mixed outcomes of an ongoing problem.
Another method that could be adopted by the media houses is the disclosure of their affiliations that may cause conflict of interests while reporting the story. Though such disclosure is mandated by laws and regulations, oftentimes citizens are unaware of such relations. Such disclosures become relevant when media houses have to report stories from within the organization itself or any individual associated with the organization.
In addition to such manual techniques, media houses can also resort to usage of automated approaches developed by social scientists. These automated approaches can differentiate between news coverage, identifying the biases through text and other information such as author’s name and date of publishing. NewsCube is one such application that has been used to aggregate key points from different news coverage on the same topic. Social and computer scientists have been attempting to use technology to analyze biases through text.
It’s appalling to see educated masses falling prey to the sheer disinformation sold as truth by the media houses. The power that such false and fake news have over the youth via the Internet is terrifying since most of the youth using social media and the Internet lack the necessary skills to interpret such information. Academicians have shown their concerns for the critical consumers of the media and have expressed the need to educate such people to seek facts over fiction. With the rate with which the fake news has taken over, the only possible approach to the problem is to concentrate on fact checking.
Considering the position of India, a major concerning factor that is leading to usage of such narratives is the lack of legal framework and regulations penalizing the outlaws of big conglomerates regulating the news. Though the National Broadcasting Standards Authority has a mechanism to combat any such complaints, it is futile since it lacks statutory authority. Traditional media have withdrawn their memberships from the Authority to avoid any conflict. There have been several proposals to the government to give substantial powers to the Press Council of India. Even the judiciary hasn’t been kind to the freedom of press. From giving freedom to press with Channing Arnold v. Emperor to the landmark Romesh Thappar case, the judiciary has had an inconsistent stance towards the issue. The right given to the press under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution cannot be taken away under any situation, thus it is important for the government to tread carefully. Yet, media houses don’t get to enjoy their rights due to restrictions. The closest that the government has come to regulating paid news was through the enactment of The Working Journalist Act, 1955, but the same was applicable only for print journalism.
Religion is an intrinsic aspect of human dignity and the media needs to be sensitive about it. It is necessary for the journalists that they focus on fair reporting based entirely, and not partly, on factual truth. Religious leaders could be consulted for understanding the factual truth behind a piece of information for responsible representation of the religion on a national platform. How much ever interesting and conflicting a statement about a certain religion might be, it is the duty of mainstream media to be a platform to support constructive dialogue about matters of societal concerns.
Instead of reproducing stereotypical prejudices and hate speech, the media needs to stick to its role of the one that researches and relays information that really concerns the wellbeing of the society. With the understanding that religion is a delicate subject in a country like India, journalists need to determine proper and sensitive communication skills while relaying any information pertaining to religion. If only media houses cut loose from the influences of big conglomerates and political influences, only then there will be a space of critical commentary to exercise free speech and opinion. It is the duty of the journalists to act arbitrators and fight intolerance; therefore, extra attention needs to be paid to check that their work does not fuel any communal intolerance. After all, journalism is the fourth pillar of democracy.
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