Fact-checking should become more effective

Only verified information should be put out in the public domain

Updated - September 07, 2020 07:51 am IST

Published - September 07, 2020 12:15 am IST

There were questions from readers about my last column, ‘Popular ideas must replace populist ideas’ (August 31), that asked for some form of accountability from India’s news channels. One reader asked whether other media platforms are free from errors and asked why television had been singled out for harsh evaluation.

The criticism flows from a wrong reading of the column which tried to explain the role of the media in creating our public sphere. Public sphere is a nebulous construct. If arguments in the public sphere are woven with facts, we get a fine tapestry. However, if they are woven with disinformation, we get a toxic environment.

Disinformation is different from inadvertent errors caused by oversight. It is true that many respected media outlets, including The Hindu , have carried errors. But these reports have often been corrected at the first instance. I argued in my column, ‘Invisible mending undermines trust’ (August 15, 2016), that the act of visible mending makes journalism more dependable.

Refusal to acknowledge mistakes

My concern is about the trust factor in the news media which has suffered a decline in the last decade. The decline in standards in television is galling because many TV channels refuse to acknowledge their mistakes, and seldom rectify their misleading or inaccurate stories. For instance, earlier this month, Alt News , a fact-checking organisation, pointed out how two TV channels of the India Today Group and one channel of The Times Group aired old images of a Chinese military cemetery as graves of Chinese soldiers killed in Galwan. With the border situation remaining tense along the Line of Actual Control, one expects media organisations to provide credible information.

What we learn from the Alt News report is that the reports in these channels were not inadvertent errors but disinformation. The channels speculated that the death toll is anywhere between 40 to 100 soldiers. The fact remains that none of them is sure of Chinese casualties in the June face-off between India and China in Galwan Valley. On August 31 , Aaj Tak claimed that it was airing “exclusive” images proving that “40 PLA soldiers” were killed in the cross-border clashes. The report said: “We are showing you pictures of the graves of Chinese soldiers. Several people in the country wanted proof of the Chinese soldiers who were killed in Galwan clashes. The proof is on your television screens…more than 40 Chinese soldiers died in clashes with India and you can watch how Chinese soldiers paid respect to their tombs.” India Today also broadcast similar visuals. It showed satellite imagery of the same set of graves with two red arrows pointing at a specific area claiming that those were “new graves”. And Times Now reported : “Photos of 106 PLA tombstones reveal [the] extent of Chinese casualties in June 15 Galwan clash.” Alt News found that the image aired by India Today dated back to 2011.

The ‘backfire effect’

Television journalists seem to have bought the ‘backfire effect’ lock, stock, and barrel. The ‘backfire effect’ is an idea propounded by American academics Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler in their paper, ‘When Corrections Fail: The persistence of political misperceptions’. Their argument is that when a claim aligns with someone’s ideological beliefs, telling them that it is wrong will actually make them believe it more strongly. The emergence of populist leaders seems to have cemented the idea of the ‘backfire effect’ in most television newsrooms.

Amy Sippitt, as Research Manager at the British fact-checking organisation, Full Fact, worked on this contentious issue in a systematic manner. Her study titled ‘Does the “backfire effect” exist — and does it matter for factcheckers?’ suggests that fact-checking does help inform citizens. ‘Backfire effects’ are rare; they are not the norm. One of the important conclusions of the Full Fact study is that we still need more evidence to understand how fact-checking content can be most effective. The American Press Institute said that in journalism, “getting it right” is the foundation upon which everything else is built — context, interpretation, comment, criticism, analysis and debate. The ‘backfire effect’ cannot be used as an excuse not to verify information before putting it out in the public domain.


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