From The Readers' Editor | Readers' Editor

Sifting news from rumours

Photo: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Photo: Getty Images/iStockphoto  

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Creating digital tools and industry protocols will help journalists reach a wide audience for corrections and clarifications

The brutal rape and murder of a 27-year-old veterinarian in Hyderabad has triggered a debate once again on capital punishment. A couple of readers wanted to know whether The Hindu will change its opposition to capital punishment in the light of this horrific crime. Legal scholars have explained in no uncertain terms that the death penalty is not a deterrent to crime against women. The arguments in my column, “Undeterred by malice” (August 1, 2015), clearly state the reason for making a distinction between justice and revenge. Journalism cannot become a tool for implementing draconian laws. One heinous crime does not justify another heinous crime. The column traced the history of this newspaper’s stand against capital punishment right from the days of the Bhagat Singh trial.

Normalising hate

One reader, P.R. Raghavan, was unhappy with the newspaper’s coverage of MP Pragya Singh Thakur’s insensitive reference to Nathuram Godse as a patriot. He felt that the newspaper consciously blacked out BJP spokesperson G.V.L. Narasimha Rao’s statement that Saamana, the official organ of the Shiv Sena, had also expressed similar admiration for Godse in the past. “Your newspaper seems to be following its tradition of suppressing news not in tune with its own narrative... some time ago it suppressed the last Census figures that revealed that the Muslim population in the country had increased much faster than the population of other communities,” he wrote.

There are multiple problems with Mr. Raghavan’s email. He must realise that whataboutery has the potential to normalise hate, undermine the public sphere, create false equivalences, and confuse agenda-peddling with news. First, it is extremely disturbing to have an elected MP making outlandish statements that normalise the political assassination of the biggest apostle of the politics of non-violence. Second, senior leaders of the BJP including Home Minister Amit Shah and Defence Minister Rajnath Singh have condemned Ms. Thakur’s statement. Third, the MP herself has apologised for her statement, however weak her apology may be. Fourth, in this context, what is the relevance of a BJP spokesperson’s attempt to cite Shiv Sena’s skewed vision of Gandhi? Did the newspaper ever defend anyone’s attempt to justify political violence and assassinations?

Providing context

What is more disturbing is that Mr. Raghavan has failed to understand that this newspaper was one of the select few that got the Census figures correct. It was the subject of my column, “Making sense of metadata” (August 29, 2015). These were the questions I had addressed then: “Did The Hindu get its story on the population by religion, based on the census figures for 2011 released on August 25, 2015, wrong? Why is its report different from the reports in other publications? Is there a bias in its reporting? What is the need for talking about numbers in terms of religion?”

In order to debunk some of the systematic lies that are generated on social media, let me recollect what I had said in that column: “In The Hindu’s editorial judgment, the Census was primarily a demographic document and it decided to look at the findings through a demographic lens. It was a valuable source of over 60 years of historical data. It became imperative to provide a context, framework and milieu to the new findings to put it a proper historical perspective. The historical context helps one understand the social transformations these numbers tend to capture. A systematic disaggregation enables us to understand the full implications of the individual strands — social, economic and regional among many others — that intertwine to form the complex metadata.”

I explained in detail how The Hindu’s report thwarted attempts to polarise society by providing the full context for the demographics. This brings us to three important questions: How do we ensure that clarifications reach a broad readership in the digital age? How do we deal with disinformation that gets amplified through encrypted platforms like WhatsApp? And how do we spread media literacy across sections, which will help citizens sift news from rumours?

We need to create digital tools and news industry protocols to help journalists reach the widest possible audiences for corrections and clarifications when inaccurate information is promoted by vested interests.

readerseditor@thehindu.co.in

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Printable version | Dec 16, 2019 6:22:25 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/Readers-Editor/sifting-news-from-rumours/article30131371.ece

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