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How mainstream media is failing India during a pandemic: Fake news and the migrant crisis amidst Coronavirus lockdown

With great power comes great responsibility. Unfortunately, at present, Indian journalism is not even close to playing superhero.

These days, mainstream media has been complaining about how it’s being treated. One can make the argument that Indian journalism is dominated by mainstream media via print and broadcast. And sure enough, these platforms ideologically lean one way or the other. But this is an incorrect statement. Indian journalism is undergoing a transformation. 

Today, we don’t just consume information from newspapers, television and radio. We also have social media platforms, chat platforms, blogs and live-streaming. Moreover, citizens do not simply consume the news. They have willingly become a part of some aspect of media. For instance, there are over 280 million Facebook users in the country. 13 million have Twitter accounts. 88 million are on Instagram. 

These social media platforms may have started out for social networking. Today, they are significant players in the news space which makes them a double-edged sword. One on end, these platforms allow for posts, digital content creation, citizen journalism and greater outreach. On the other end, fake news and misinformation have entered Indian journalism for the foreseeable future. 

The plethora of fake news, fear-mongering and misinformation is evident with COVID-19 coverage. In fact, coverage had gotten so out of hand that the Supreme Court of India and the Press Council of India had to step in. Both issued advisories to the media. 

Specifically, the Supreme Court said, “The migration of a large number of labourers working in cities was triggered by panic created by fake news that the lockdown would continue for more than three months. Such panic-driven migration has caused untold suffering to those that believed and acted on such news. In fact, some have lost their lives in the process. It is, therefore, not possible for us to overlook this menace of fake news…”

Furthermore, the Press Council of India called upon “media to responsibl[y] ensure dissemination of verified news on coronavirus outbreak, based on the daily bulletin by the government following the Supreme Court’s directive on the issue.”  

Despite this, mainstream media continues to publish anti-government and fake narratives. And when these pieces get fact-checked and countered with credibility, these platforms opt to play the victim card. Predictably and unsurprisingly, they accuse the Central government for attacking the ‘freedom of the press.’ 

The actuality of this is simple. If the Prime Minister and the Central Government are free speech ‘oppressors,’ then how are the following articles getting published and widely circulated? 

Example 1. 

The Wire targeted national leaders and published an article on how these ‘authoritarians’ are using COVID-19 to conceal their ineptitude. 

The actuality: India has been lauded internationally by multiple bodies for the way it is handling the pandemic as compared to other affected nations. 

Example 2.

The Print articulated how COVID-19 decision-making is determined by PM Modi’s political aspirations. 

The actuality: Multiple videoconferences have been held between PM Modi and Chief Ministers. All suggestions and considerations were taken seriously and made public. Today, it is state leaders that are in control of what action to take based on the COVID-19 situation within each respective state/UT. The Central government is providing necessary support as needed. 

Example 3. 

The Indian Express went so far as to elaborate how COVID-19 has put an end to the ‘problems’ created by the CAA. 

The actuality: The Indian Express was called out for cropping published images to mislead the public on the CAA and the Delhi Riots that took place. It held a clear anti-government and fear-mongering stance on the CAA and the Delhi Riots. Consequently, linking COVID-19 to CAA gives zero credibility. 

What is the tragedy here? Mainstream media is not utilizing social media platforms’ enhanced technology and wider outreach for the greater good. Social media platforms are present in every corner and strata across India. WhatsApp has proven to be one of the most powerful mediums for delivering information quickly. Yet, there is far less information on best practices. There is even less coverage on how economies have been hit by pandemics before and bounce back. And only a handful of published pieces on how India will become self-reliant and more digitized.  

What is needed from Indian journalism right now is positive, objective content giving clarity on the way forward. How citizens should learn to live with COVID-19 safely. What industries and job opportunities are opening up. How can entrepreneurs and our young workforce go digital in a sustainable manner. The Indian masses are craving this information. Instead, mainstream media still opts to publish sensationalism, misinformation and fear-mongering. 

Indians have shown their notable capacity in the fight against coronavirus. The presence on the internet and social media platforms has exponentially increased as the fourth phase of the national lockdown continues. The press is a fundamental pillar of democracy. This means that mainstream media can easily create positive impact in India’s current situation. By publishing content that sheds light on how citizens should go forward post-lockdown, mainstream media can indeed be the superhero in fighting COVID-19. 

With great power comes great responsibility. Unfortunately, at present, Indian journalism is not even close to playing superhero.

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Priyanka Deo
Priyanka Deo is currently an executive producer and anchor at New India Junction. She holds masters’ degrees from Harvard, the London School of Economics and Political Science and the University of Southern California.

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