The elusive search for truth

Many people trust social media forwards more than evidence-based, data-driven journalism

August 10, 2020 12:15 am | Updated 12:15 am IST

Some readers wondered whether my reading of the crisis in the news media is about journalism or about the news industry. Though the fortunes of the news industry have a bearing on journalism, there is, indeed, a difference between looking at issues that govern journalism and the factors that contribute to the financial stress of the media industry. Over the last few years, I have been discussing the impact of digitalisation on journalism. The pandemic has accelerated the process of digital transformation of the news media. Therefore, these issues need close scrutiny.

One of the defining elements of analog journalism was the way two crucial functions of journalism — bearing witness and making sense — complemented each other and helped people make informed choices. When I talk about the strength of analog, I am neither romanticising the past nor am I a Luddite. Most importantly, I do not believe in nostalgia. Many scholars have established “how rose-coloured glasses always leads to an unfair distortion — looking back on the best of the past while comparing it to the worst of the present.” Hence, when I talk about the digital information news environment, I am talking about how there needs to be a conducive atmosphere for credible information to resonate with the people. Literature on misinformation, disinformation and malinformation reveals a new distinction in the minds of the citizens. Editors and journalists have to contend with a new breed of sceptics. These are the people who trust social media forwards more than evidence-based, data-driven journalism. Their confirmation bias flows from encrypted social media platforms that are full of conspiracy theories.

Some terms — for instance ‘post-truth’ and ‘alternative facts’ — that have gained currency in the last five years fail to explain the complex reality that is haunting journalism and its reliance on evidence and data. Let me explain this with a specific example. On the first anniversary of the dilution of Article 370, The Hindu, apart from carrying news reports, published two lead articles — Happymon Jacob’s “A year on, Article 370 and Kashmir mythmaking” (August 4) and Amitabh Mattoo’s “Rekindle Kashmir’s lost and real connect” (August 5) — and a ‘Data Point’ titled “Paradise lost” (August 5). But the reactions we got to these were puzzling. One reader dismissed the ‘Data Point’ and placed his faith above the evidence available. He asked: “Is your source reliable? Was it done by an independent agency or some ‘politically’ motivated one? Why compare the J&K lockdown with the COVID-19 lockdown? What are you trying to convey apart from confusing people and feeding negativity? Yes, both the lockdowns are severe for J&K but they will be eventually removed and normalcy restored.”

Another reader, Raghavan, was angry with Mr. Jacob’s piece. He said: “A mythmaking opinion from the factory of mythmaking, JNU, anxious about the myths made for decades being exposed as myths. Expecting a miracle within a year to prove that undoing Article 370 is better than the decades of turmoil with no end in sight while nurturing that Article is in the realm of myths, really.” Jugal Ghosh felt that Mr. Mattoo was wrong and said: “The abrogation stretched the state benefits to all its residents and the sooner they realise it, the better it is for all. This pain about abrogation is purely imaginary to make news.”

Facts and truth

First Draft Footnotes is a study commissioned by First Draft with the aim of protecting communities around the world from harmful, false, and misleading information. Silicon Valley conglomerates rely on quantitative attributes. They value the metrics that drive the traffic to websites. The Footnotes series, on the other hand, brought back the qualitative component to counterbalance the reliance on analytics to determine the health of our news and information environment. One of their recent studies was about the perceived difference of news consumers between facts and “truth”, and about how this perception creates vulnerabilities online. The study documents our paradoxical existence in more ways than one. For instance, it points out that “those who generate and amplify misinformation and malinformation are the ones who often use words related to the truth, such as disingenuous; nonsense; false; charade; deception; concealed, disguised, hiding, show; find; reveals; exposes; uncovers.” In this world view, journalism is all about facts, but conspiracy theories are what gain the status of truth. The crisis is not with journalism alone.

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