During election time, there is a lot of pressure on legacy media, especially in this era of information overload. Some readers wonder why this column, which is primarily meant to address the requirements of both the print and online readers of The Hindu, also looks at the impact of social media on our information ecology. This is because information that crowds the social mediascape is often used to question mainstream journalists.
Most WhatsApp forwards from people we know happen to be unconfirmed information and speculation. I often wonder why people compulsively forward messages that they themselves don’t believe at times. On the other hand, journalism is an attempt to bear witness and provide news. The act of verification in journalism differentiates it from other sources of information. Even in this digital era, credible news organisations do not depend on copy-and-paste reporting. They try their best to refrain from becoming echo chambers.
Lies on Twitter
I am a social media sceptic, but I am on Twitter primarily to provide a quick forum for the readers to raise questions pertaining to The Hindu. I do examine complaints, immaterial of the route through which they reach us. Accuracy and fairness are the central themes of journalism, and legacy media tries to uphold these principles despite the multiple attacks from social media. On social media, a deliberate lie by a politically aligned personality gets amplified in an exponential manner. And some use these lies to question The Hindu.
The latest example is a tweet by Madhu Kishwar, editor of the journal, Manushi. Her tweet read: “DMK manifesto Page 112…People occupying encroached temple lands will be regularised and ownership transferred. Page 85…Encroached Waqf properties will be reclaimed and handed over to Wakf.” After reading this tweet, those who are aligned with the ruling party at the Centre called and asked us why The Hindu has been silent on these crucial issues. The problem does not lie with The Hindu because the DMK manifesto was only 76 pages and was widely circulated both in English and Tamil. Can a newspaper buy such disinformation from a partisan social media activist at the cost of truth? Contrary to Ms. Kishwar’s religiously polarising politics, the DMK’s manifesto talks about functioning without prejudice towards any religion in the country.
When I explained this, some of Ms. Kishwar’s apologists tried to invoke the DMK’s 2016 manifesto for the Legislative Assembly elections to justify her outlandish claims. But a reading of the 2016 manifesto of the party does not reveal any preferential treatment for any religion. It talks about the party’s commitment to protect the assets belonging to various places of worship irrespective of the religion.
Dealing with problematic content
As The Hindu’s Readers’ Editor, I have always pointed out the failures within this newspaper, including inaccurate headlines and the dependence on anonymous sources while reporting. The editors of this newspaper have always exhibited a fair sense of propriety and humility by publicly apologising whenever there have been mistake. As journalists, we are accountable only to truth and not to those who wield power. I would like to request all those who derive their information only from social media to read an outstanding paper, ‘The Impact of Newspaper Ombudsmen on Journalists’ Attitudes’, by David Pritchard of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He diligently used data from a national survey of journalists to examine the difference between newspapers with ombudsmen and those without.
Recently, the Election Commission of India met with the representatives of The Internet and Mobile Association of India and various social media organisations to formulate a code of ethics for online platforms. Platforms such as Facebook, WhatsApp, Google, Twitter, ShareChat and ByteDance have agreed to a voluntary code, where the emphasis is on dealing with problematic content. Ms. Kishwar’s tweet is a test for this new code.