Wednesday, 19 January, 2022

Sifting Facts From Rumours

Sifting Facts From Rumours

Dr. Kundan Aryal


Around a hundred years ago, Guardian editor CP Scott had put his life-long learning in a sentence: Comment is free…but facts are sacred. However, over the years, Scott's doctrine of protecting the sacredness of facts has been neglected, manipulated and distorted even in the era of professional practices. As people receive information in their day-to-day life mainly from media outlets, best practices of collecting, verifying and rechecking facts are expected in journalism. The sociology of any subsystem of society could not be independent of other subsystems within the same social system. But, a strong belief is equally pervasive that media as a subsystem of society can induce a process of change in any society. To quote Scott again, the media thrives not only by material existence, rather more importantly by their moral existence.

Pseudo environment
Major efforts of journalistic training are being devoted to making a journalist able to separate facts from rumours. Many a time, rumours surface as facts and the general public may get indulged in pseudo environment. It is journalistic skills that help people know the fact. However, a big question hovering around everywhere in the world is: What will happen if media outlets is captured to produce rumours? It is the question, in line with a hundred-year-old worry expressed by Walter Lippmann that what happens if a huge discrepancy will be created by the media in conveying the picture of the real world into our heads.
Although there are journalistic rules dedicated to fair practices and get rid of dilemma, the world of journalism is still facing rational or sometimes irrational comments that even the professional media are not abiding by their self-made rules. On their part, the proponents of professional media practice argue that the major sources of unethical media practices are the unethical socio-economic and political interventions as well as ignorance of the audience.
In this context, the recent trend of fact-checking is considered as an attempt to ensure the reliability and dependability of the mass media. The Washington Post, with a belief that democracy dies in darkness, has been running a column aimed at fact-checking. Its award-winning journalist Glenn Kessler has been serving as the editor and chief writer of the Fact Checker since its inception in 2011. Many fact-checkers around the world are surfacing the truth behind the rhetoric. The newspaper’s fact-checker claims that in a busy 24-hour news cycle, it is hard to spot the truth behind the rhetoric.
In 1981, Jean Baudrillard presented his seminal work ‘Simulacra and Simulation’. It is even more relevant in the context of the current debates on partisanship and pure lies flying around and going viral in new media. Based on the media in existence during that time, Baudrillard had recognised that simulation of communications media and mass reproduction creates an environment where an inherent lack of connection to the real would be obvious. In the course of detailing the general trend of postmodernity Baudrillard had described the communications landscape where it would be difficult to differentiate real one from the simulation.
Today, in many instances, facts are sidelined and so-called alternative facts are being presented. Thus, his idea has been proved to be instrumental in analysing the media portrayals. He had indicated the phenomena of fake news and creation of post-truth reports before the advent of new media and its offspring - social media. In 1908, Mahatma Gandhi explained the role of the media on his own. His idea was expressed in Gujrati and later translated into English in 1921 in a booklet entitled Hind Swaraj (Indian Self-Rule).
His viewpoint on the role of journalism surfaced in the same period when Scott and Lippman were struggling to establish that the first duty of a newspaper is to articulate truth. Though he had adopted journalism for the cause the independence movement, his idea is still relevant today. He had highlighted three functions of newspapers - to understand popular feelings and give expression to it; to arouse certain desirable sentiments among people and to fearlessly expose popular defects.

Fake news
Fake news is not only a frequent topic over the years. It is so pervasive in every society of the world. It has been cited as the phenomena in regard to political or domestic affairs as well as in international politics. It is generally anticipated that the media needs to abide by professional standards. However, the state of national as well as international practice and affairs influence the communication practice. It is assumed that the media verify and cross-verify the facts. Because, in principle, such practices belong to their social responsibility to separate the facts from rumours. It is also assumed that the mass media outlets edit contents by applying professional standers and media logics. But, there are social media that provides a platform for every individual to express freely at one's convenience. Here, every individual needs to be responsible and keep self-restraint.
When a society anticipates a good practice from one of its subsystem, other subsystems need to be equally reviewed. Social media influencers are powerful actors in an environment created by technological advancement. Institutional mass media are also found to be involved in cooking fake news in some instances. But in most cases, they are disseminators rather than producers. There are many sources of fake news in Nepali society. The general public has every right to expect from the Nepali media that they need to abide by the professional process of news gathering, processing and disseminating. It is the foremost prerequisite to stop the manufacturing of fake news and disinformation.
Against this backdrop, appointing a fact-checker editor as in the case of The Washington Post would be the best example. From the USA to Nepal, the general public has been misled and fed up with fabricated information. Thus, the fact-checker can serve as an antidote to the fake news in the age of post-truth marked by explosion of information and political chaos.

(Dr. Aryal is associated with the Central Department of Journalism and Mass Communication of Tribhuvan University.)