Free and fair is not fake

Discussing steps to rebuild trust in the media

We have laws, codes and guidelines for ethical journalism. But to make practical sense of these written words, one has to take inspiration from the great poet, Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi: “Life’s picture is constantly undergoing change. The spirit beholds a new world every moment.” A news ombudsman has to soak in the spirit of the guiding principles and not indulge in a narrow interpretation of words if journalism has to thrive as the finest form of public discourse.

In the case of The Hindu, the first editorial, “Ourselves” (September 20, 1878), codified the rules for this newspaper. It talked about the role of the press in not only giving expression to public opinion but also its ability to modify and mould opinion according to circumstances. It exhorted the educated section to fill the gap between the governors and the governed. In keeping with the changing times, the newspaper subsequently adopted a Code of Editorial Values and Terms of Reference for the Readers’ Editor. These documents laid emphasis on being credible and trustworthy.

Impact of digital disruption

There is an entire oeuvre of literature on how digital disruption has played havoc with the tested revenue models of newspapers. As an ombudsman, my concern is more about its debilitating effect on the news environment, its corroding influence on the trust factor, its ability to amplify echo chambers at the cost of plurality of views and creating a false balance between news that has been put in the public sphere after being editorially vetted and omnipresent instant views generated by social media. A policy brief by the National Endowment for Democracy talks about a “4D” offensive of disinformation: “dismiss an opponent’s claims or allegations, distort events to serve political purposes, distract from one’s own activities, and dismay those who might otherwise oppose one’s goals.” The brief also cautions us about the real pitfall: “If an information campaign uses falsehoods and emotional appeals not to persuade or attract but to disrupt, divide, confuse, or otherwise damage target audiences’ understanding or political cohesion, it more closely aligns with disinformation and its undermining function.”

My predecessors were fortunate to work in an era when the Internet was a benevolent facilitator. There were no Twitter-driven trolls, no malignant Facebook posts, no WhatsApp to spread rumours about everything — from the health of a political leader to communal skirmishes. Most importantly, no one wrote to them questioning the newspaper on bad fiction that masquerades as news. One way to gauge the magnitude of the crisis today is to read the recent report in The New York Times : “Google Serves Fake News Ads in an Unlikely Place: Fact-Checking Sites” (Oct. 17).

Evolving new tools

As a person who has handled copies for over three decades, I know that there are certain individual variances when one writes a small note or a brief intervention. How does one explain hundreds of mails, with multiple names, bearing the same text? Is there some form of automation that triggers this avalanche of mails? To deal with new challenges which are undermining the public good character of a newspaper or a broadcaster, the Organisation of News Ombudsmen is debating and evolving new tools.

We are meeting in Chennai this week to discuss a compelling theme: “Free and fair is not fake”. We have panel discussions to contextualise some of the vexatious issues in order to find a solution. For instance, the panel on fake news will explore the following questions: What do citizens really think? What can we do to rebuild the relationship between the newspaper and readers? How do we deal with hate speech and terror when one feeds off the other?

A blanket rule of dos and don’ts could become censorship, so we need a layered understanding of the magnitude of these two trends to work out on a viable approach in journalism. UNESCO’s recent handbook on hate speech and terror is the prism through which a panel of experts wants to come up with specific codes that are not only ethical but also protect the unhindered flow of information. This sharing among peers of experience and expertise would ensure accountability in this fast-changing technological environment that is blurring the distinction between news, opinions and rumours.


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