The Indian media has a notorious reputation for sensationalising news or making claims that aren’t entirely accurate.
Most recently, politician Shashi Tharoor filed a defamation lawsuit against Arnab Goswami for his reportage on the Sunanda Pushkar case.
Responding to this news, journalist Barkha Dutt said that Goswami has “routinely tarnished journalists and even called for their trial and arrest. I won’t shed a tear for him facing criminal action for his dangerous, communal and vile reportage.”
Indian media has a sensationalism problem
Goswami and his network Republic TV have, once again, come under fire for inflammatory reportage. In the Aligarh Muslim University sedition row, a media crew from Republic TV were accused of making discriminatory statements on air, like calling the students “terrorists”.
Republic TV isn’t the only network in the Indian media that has run into trouble because of its style of reporting. From Aaj Tak reporting on Sridevi’s death with the slogan “Maut ka bathtub” (bathtub of death) to Times Now creating a sensationalist hashtag #ShameInSydney because of the lost cricket match, the Indian media often colours the news it is reporting.
While sensationalism is a problem on its own, the Indian media’s problematic reportage can trigger serious events like cyber bullying and communal riots, especially when covering incidents like the Pulwama attack.
The Quint says, “If the media gives full vent to popular anger and in intemperate language, it raises the temperature of the people’s mood. This may foreclosure some opportune options and precipitate moves earlier than government may want to.”
How did the media cover Pulwama?
Lately, the Indian media has been covering different aspects of the Pulwama attack, and for good reason. The suicide bombing carried out by the terrorist outfit, Jaish-e-Mohammed, was one of the most fatal attacks made on Indian soil, with roots in the Kashmir issue.
When the news broke, various Indian networks reported responses by leaders in the government who would naturally take an aggressive stance towards the attack.
For example, The Indian Express quoted Prime Minister Modi and Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, who criticised Pakistan for being involved.
Times Now, known for its provocative reporting, also chose to focus on an ‘us versus them’ narrative by mostly covering what politicians were saying instead of the hard facts of the attack.
When the Times of India published a sensationalist headline, people criticised it for “unfairly blaming Pakistan”. The publication replaced the headline and added an editor’s note at the end saying that its coverage clarified that the terrorist was a member of the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammad.
According to the Quint, some news networks allowed an expression of anger, but through anchors who were able to control their emotions. “Measured coverage of grief should not be a problem as long as it does not fan the jingoistic fires”, said the outlet.
That is often a thin line to straddle because it is the press’ duty to report what state officials say, even if they make vengeful and uncorroborated statements. However, the press also has a responsibility of fact-checking information and educating its readers, not simply regurgitating statements and condemnations.
A simple way to do this is by inviting experts and researchers to make statements, which news networks often do.
Most international media outlets provided background on the Indo-Pak conflict over Kashmir and quoted top diplomats who could help their audiences understand the significance of the event.
New York Times discussed how Kashmir is a “pressure cooker” and that Modi might feel compelled to respond militarily with the upcoming elections. It also mentioned that Pakistan denies any involvement in the attack.
Similarly, BBC provided information on Jaish-e-Mohammad and that “Kashmir has been a flashpoint between India and Pakistan”. It also discussed India’s options with a focus on the general elections and Pakistan’s response to the allegations.
However, when it comes to aggression on their own soil, international outlets start to look like the Indian media during the Pulwama coverage, as well.
For instance, BBC published a video showing subway wreckage after the 7/7 bombing and ran a piece on whether or not MI5 could have prevented the whole tragedy. In 9/11 coverage, NYT also quoted Bush rallying against terrorism and described how “smoke and fires poured out of the towers”.
Is only the media to blame?
Short answer: no, it’s not. Our information sources have now become extremely diverse. The rise of smartphones and social media has created a huge paradigm shift in Indians’ news consumption habits.
The Economic Times reports that 80% of Indians now get their news from social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook.
With an increasing number of people using social media, not only is the availability of media information on these devices important, but it also matters how users contextualise and share them on these platforms.
BBC’s study on the spread of fake news in WhatsApp shows that “facts were less important to some than the emotional desire to bolster national identity.” While collectivism can help communities overcome crisis situations, such an identity should not be established at the expense of other groups.
However, as smartphones become cheaper and more accessible in the Indian market, the scale of information-sharing has exponentially increased, making it difficult to check jingoism and unverified information.
The Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India Secretary General D S Rawat said that unverified content “passes as truth (on social media platforms), which remains an area of concern”.
Difference between conservative and liberal responses
Another factor to consider is the kind of personalities people follow on social media.
Right-wing politicians usually have a more action-based response to issues of the world, meaning they believe in the value of military options when discussing the country’s political interests and see the world as a zero-sum game.
In contrast, liberal personalities stress the importance of peace-building institutions like the United Nations (UN) for the pursuit of a country’s objectives and see the world as positive sum.
This distinction is important because politicians on either side of the political spectrum phrase the same issue differently. For example, Jaitley, a conservative, tweeted that the attack was a “cowardice & condemnable act of terrorists… terrorist will be given an unforgettable lesson for their heinous act.”
Rahul Gandhi, a liberal, also tweeted that the attack was “cowardly”, but said “many of our brave CRPF men have been martyred and a large number wounded”.
Although this article makes no judgment on which politician’s response is more moral or responsible, it shows that there is a marked difference in tonality and phrasing when discussing the same issue.
Another phenomenon to be cognisant of is selective exposure theory that suggests that people gravitate towards information they already agree with. This is also known as confirmation bias.
Here’s how it works: based on their political beliefs and general perception of the world, people consume a piece of information and choose to vocalise parts that confirm their pre-existing beliefs while discarding the rest.
Confirmation bias slowly builds into an echo chamber or virtual bubble of sorts where social media users are only exposed to ideas they are already inclined to agree with, not thoughts that will challenge their world view.
If you believe in right-wing ideology and find yourself only reading tweets by Times Now or watching Goswami on Republic TV, you might be in an echo chamber. The situation is similar if you consider yourself centre-left and consume only Mirror Now or Faye D’Souza’s reportage.
Consequences of mindless social media usage
Checking confirmation bias and knowing the political affiliations of public figures is crucial because they inform our understanding of the world, the kind of media we choose to consume, and the way we conduct ourselves around people we disagree with.
Quartz India says that, following the Pulwama attack, certain communal groups have been “living in fear” of Hindu extremist groups like Bajrang Dal, reporters are being harassed for the channels they are associated with, and minority communities like Muslims are being targeted with hate messages.
Social media can also be a kind and compassionate place. When news surfaced that minorities, especially Kashmiris, were being persecuted, many tweeted that their homes were open for anyone seeking shelter.
Dushyant said on Twitter, “I live in Noida and my home + the homes of many of my friends is open to any kashmiri who isn’t feeling safe in Delhi/NCR.” Activists like Shehla Rashid tweeted similar avenues of support.
While we must hold the Indian media accountable for its journalism and ensure that it upholds neutrality, we must also check our own consumption habits and educate ourselves on our blind spots.
Rhea Arora is a staff writer at Qrius