From copybook to copycat style communication

Two years ago, I was locked in a war of words with Chetan Bhagat over whether speed is killing the true spirit of journalism. The debate was a part of the annual Polestar Awards. As a breaking news hound then, I remember vociferously defending the ‘news as it happens’ syndrome. Having now moved away from mainstream news reporting and anchoring; and as a more relaxed and yes, dispassionate and discerning observer, I am appalled at the mad scramble to be ‘first’ with the rumour.

And even if news editors don’t impose this crazy deadline of yesterday, twitterati revel in fresh tweets that pass for ‘information’. What’s worse, instantaneous judgments are passed at the speed of light. And this is ‘retweeted’ and ‘favorited’ at a breathtaking pace. This ‘trial by the social media’ has been on for quite sometime but there is not even a semblance of remorse when they get it wrong.

Some, at least have the decency to delete tweets; others seem to care two hoots. The actor Kanaka story is the latest case in point. That the former heroine decided not to sue but to take the much tweeted ‘death due to cancer’ and all those obituaries in her stride and even laugh it off, is a reflection of her large- heartedness. The real cancer lies in the web of rumour and gossip and half baked ideas that abound on these platforms.

Whether news organisations accept it or not, there is subtle pressure to keep up with the Joneses, which in this case, is the social media. The logic of ‘Let’s put it out, what if it’s true?’ heralds a dangerous trend of perverted ‘play it safe’ communication. In the good old days, the dictum would have undoubtedly been: ‘Let’s not put it out, what if it’s untrue?’. This was copybook style. Now it’s copycat style — from what the other channel is flashing to what’s trending on twitter.

The mainstream media’s ‘quota’ of ‘breaking news’ can at least be remotely understood from a TRP standpoint. What’s the driving force behind twitter? When are we going to realise that twitter is no news wire? That it can jolly well win any award for misinformation, hands down? And that twitterati are not journalists? When is twitter going to realise that ‘followers’ stand on the same pedestal as viewers and readers, to the extent that they can be easily misled? And sadly, now even set the agenda for sections of the breaking news brigade?

This week, they sang ‘Abide With Me’ for an actor who was alive and kicking. Tomorrow, hopefully they will not fan communal flames or spread panic during a natural disaster. Restraint, responsibility and accuracy are magic words but don’t utter them aloud, unless you want to be called ‘undemocratic’ and labelled an ‘anti-free speech’ bloke! Or worse, a ‘media crook’!

Now, incorrect news can be defamatory too. And, can show up on search engines. In response to a specific query, I was very surprised and disappointed to hear that “there is nothing that Google can do to remove content from third-party web pages. Google simply aggregates and organises information published on the web.” Even if a page is eliminated from its search results, it would still exist on the web. “True, there is no vicarious liability in criminal law but in my opinion, Indian laws do not allow platforms to do a Pontius Pilate and wash its hands off in a casual fashion. So, what’s the prescription the Internet giant offers? “You can try to reduce the visibility of certain sites in search results by proactively publishing useful, positive information about yourself or your business.” Moral: Tackle defamation with a PR overdrive? My legal antenna is up.

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