The infodemic that accompanies the pandemic

Reporting credible information is all the more important now

April 13, 2020 12:15 am | Updated April 16, 2020 10:48 am IST

Responsible journalism is to report the facts and not deepen social fissures. Photo for representation.

Responsible journalism is to report the facts and not deepen social fissures. Photo for representation.

At this time of COVID-19-induced physical distancing, it is rather cruel to repeat the refrain of news ombudsmen that ours is a lonely job. I do have a companion weekly column in this newspaper, ‘Notebook’, where journalists share the responsibility of fostering media literacy. Unlike academic disciplines, media literacy does not have a rigid curriculum. It is an evolving discipline and draws its substantial inputs from journalists who are successful in reconciling freedom with responsibility. The ‘Notebook’, “ Curating news for children during pandemic ”, (April 10) by Krithika Reddy T., reflects on the present lacunae in addressing the needs of students and what can be done during this lockdown.

The ban on hydroxychloroquine

One of the defining elements of good journalism is to provide space for rigorous examination of issues, based on evidence, research and academic review, in an accessible language. A reader from Pollachi, A. Balagangadharan, was unhappy with The Hindu ’s report, “ India lifts ban on export of hydroxychloroquine ” (April 8). He felt that while the front-page report emphasised that the ban was lifted after U.S. President Donald Trump’s warning of a “retaliation”, the Ministry of External Affairs’ statement was deliberately pushed to the inside pages. Three more letters suggested that the newspaper should have glossed over the “retaliation” warning and focussed instead only on the humanitarian gesture of the Indian state.

It is my fervent hope that readers realise the importance of credible information that is not subjected to censorship. Journalism is a presentation of our complex interlocking public. Let us examine how hydroxychloroquine itself represents an interlocking public. First, the newspaper’s position was articulated in its editorial, “ In time of need ” (April 10), where it said that “irrespective of whether India bowed to U.S. pressure, it is unlikely to run out of the drug.” The editorial also flagged questions about the efficacy of the drug in treating COVID-19 based on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s position of April 7 that “there is no drug available to prevent or treat COVID-19.”

On April 7, the online edition of the newspaper carried an important article by the Science Editor, R. Prasad, “ Hydroxychloroquine: publisher expresses ‘concerns’ about study ”. The article explained that 10 days after the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) approved the use of hydroxychloroquine for prophylaxis by healthcare workers attending to suspected or confirmed COVID-19 cases and asymptomatic household contacts of confirmed cases, the publisher of an international journal that published a study on the drug’s purported efficacy expressed “concerns” about the paper. The paper was published on March 17 in the International Journal of Antimicrobial Agents . On April 3, the journal’s publisher, the International Society of Antimicrobial Chemotherapy, said: “The ISAC Board believes the article does not meet the Society’s expected standard, especially relating to the lack of better explanations of the inclusion criteria and the triage of patients to ensure patient safety.” The unusual haste with which the paper was published is disturbing. As The Hindu report pointed out, “the paper was published a day after it was submitted to the journal, and one of the authors was Editor-in-Chief of the journal.”

Looking at journals cautiously

The hydroxychloroquine controversy has forced journalists to even look at journals cautiously. On April 7, the day The Hindu expressed doubts on the efficacy of hydroxychloroquine, The Guardian carried a report, “Hydroxychloroquine: how an unproven drug became Trump’s coronavirus ‘miracle cure’”. It explained how the hydroxychloroquine story “is a distinctly modern tale of misinformation within a global information ecosystem beset by widespread uncertainty, fear, media fragmentation and hyper-partisanship.”

In its situation report 13, the World Health Organization said that the “2019-nCoV outbreak and response has been accompanied by a ‘infodemic’” — some accurate and some not. And this does not include the underplaying of threats by various governments from China to the U.S. Along with these global issues, Indian journalists have to confront an additional burden: communalisation. Responsible journalism is to report the facts and not deepen social fissures. It was — and is — a demanding task.

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