Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Journalism of ‘Pusti’

Children today are fish in technological waters. Media education should thus be part of the curricula from primary school level

Dharma Adhikari
What is your take on Kanchan Sharma Regmi story? I have been asked this question a number of times in recent weeks. The story that spiraled from journalist Suman Kharel’s interview with the homeless woman mid-November first moved everyone, and then soon disconcerted many.

As a media critic, my job in stories like this is to be skeptical at best, even if such a reaction may appear unkind at first. What bothered me most was not the story itself, but the story structure. Soon I wrote on Facebook that the story was powerful, but it was totally one-sided. Kharel had shown zero effort at journalistic verification. Whatever happened to the notion of “the other side”, I asked.

Similar bogus or scripted stories from the past began to flash in my mind: the story of Dil Shova Shrestha, Anuja Baniya (whom I nicknamed “Lady Wah-Wah” in a column right here), and Dr Resendra Bhattarai, to name a few. Remembering how such non-news had fooled me and drained my precious time, I prayed that the latest episode was all true and that I didn’t have to regret for lost time and emotional stress lest it turned out to be fake.

We did not have to wait another week to hear from Mohan Regmi on a YouTube clip. Kanchan’s husband presented himself as the real victim of the family feud. Kharel finally apologized a week later saying that he had failed to verify with Regmi. In particular, he seemed to have taken to heart that sometimes trusting sources and story subjects could be problematic.

In recent years, there has been widespread perception that we are inundated with fake news, hoaxes, misrepresentations and outright manipulation of facts. Some of the biggest news stories, such as the earthquake a year ago and the periodic political upheavals, present us with gripping and disturbing examples of false predictions, unverified claims, wrong facts, photo manipulation, etc. An image of earthquake victims from Vietnam or a photo of a person set on fire in North Carolina can easily manipulate us into believing that something tragic or sinister is going on right here.

Without hard data and research, our understanding of the fake news trend in Nepal remains anecdotal, although instances of such stories are more reported today. Any distortion or deception is shocking if the news topic is as grave an earthquake, political agitation or a high-profile celebrity for the simple reason that such stories absorb large audiences. A vast number of everyday stories, if they cannot strike a chord with the public, remain unchallenged in their false assertions or affirmations. It is only when news outlets wrongly report the death of Binod Chaudhury, the billionaire (as some did in September), that we realize such stories, in fact, are common.

Increased outlets, contents and users foster competition for quality, but these also mean more room for falsehood. Today, with rapid growth of social media, the sensational infosphere goes beyond the confines of journalism. The yellow, tabloid journalism of the 1980s and 1990s is back, in a digital manifestation and it is far more enveloping.

Counterfeit news is thus nothing new. We in Nepal might still be more tolerant of falsehood than many western countries. Hoaxes and conspiracies are our way of life. There is not much urge to debunk falsehood. We go by our ancient scriptures that teach us that good and evil co-exist. The sage Narad himself institutionalized idle gossip.

It just feels good to believe in such things and news media simply serve our existing bias. Scripted and staged events form the bulk of the political, interest-group and corporate news. We are gradually becoming meticulous in our audio-visual manipulation also. With stunning advancement in new media applications such as Project VoCo, it will not take much time before we begin sound-shopping, type-recording something a politician or a public figure never actually said. That’s a scary scenario.

Besides the flatly counterfeit news that serves us with un-truth, propaganda and entertainment, what is equally important in our analysis of misleading and deceptive information is the overall journalistic integrity and truthfulness of stories. At least four issues are of real concern: advertorials, satire, factual errors and journalistic format.

Advertorials are becoming common. We may already be well on the way to a full-fledged sponsored content as in the West or “paid news” as in India. Except perhaps for occasions like Gai Jatra or April’s Fool, humor or satire news is equally suspect for its disregard for fairness and accuracy. We mix these genres indiscriminately in the regular diet of journalism, and doing so is even more dangerous than running a full-fledged site clearly identified as satire news.

Errors of facts and contexts and of format are rampant in our news media, and even more so in social media. Without the shape, meaning is amorphous. Too often, many online outlets and social media platforms look like reckless graffiti and Narad-isque in their gossips. Assertions abound and nobody seems to have the time to verify raw information.

And when was the last time you read a story that started with the most important information in an inverted pyramid format and had at least three authoritative sources? As a recurring pattern, completeness is scarce.

So then, how can we fight this journalism of assertion and affirmation in favor of the journalism of verification? First, we need to get rid of the word “pusti”, affirmation, that we use in newsrooms in our fast-dwindling effort to verify information and sources. A more appropriate term would be “pramanikaran”, verification, the process of vetting information.

With “everyday” stories becoming “big” now and then, reporters need to develop new sourcing strategies to reach ordinary people, who display different communication sensibilities than in the long-cultivated official sources. Suman Kharel, for example, was frantically trying to record a video interview with Mohan Regmi for his next show but he managed to only talk with him on telephone.

Government regulatory bodies, including the prime minister himself, are often quick to threaten media workers or their outlets with legislative action on their journalistic flaws or excesses. Technology has no jurisdiction, and it is beyond their capacity to regulate content like that. The problem goes well beyond journalism, and currently, we are at the mercy of Facebook or Google that do not seem to be properly and adequately filtering the trash. The best thing the government can do in a democracy is to facilitate dialogues among professionals to help resolve such problems on their own.  

Somebody should start working on a live fake news inventory. We need professionals and watchdog groups that are more conversant in the scientific methods of critical scrutiny, in the processes of new technologies. This is where the industry and the academia could cooperate. Google does not necessarily lead to quality, authentic information. A lot of our cutting-edge research, the best we have been able to produce, is, for example, located on nepjol.info, in hundreds of scientific journals, including many peer-reviewed; meaning already verified.

Practical academic learning, especially on the workings and impact of media has become urgent. With their fully mediated lives, children today are fish in technological waters. Media education should be part of the curricula from the primary school level. The future of media depends on empowering the users, dismantling passive consumption habits, and instilling critical thinking skills so they don’t share another bogus news item just because they like it.

Start with the basic skills in spotting a poorly edited copy, inadequate or inappropriate story sources, lack of byline, timeline or contact information, dubious domain name, misleading links, etc. It comes down to a little more restrain, skepticism and some rigor.

Published in Republica, 6 December 2016