By Sabina Inderjit
The famous quote ‘facts are sacred, but comment is free,’ by British journalist CP Scott, founder of what is The Guardian today in the UK, is more relevant than ever before in these times of bitter competition and proliferation of websites and digital media overtaking the traditional print journalism globally. The need for objectivity, impartiality and balance in journalism is a bigger challenge for media professionals today, amidst the current climate of fake news, misinformation or disinformation.
Sadly, the basics of good journalism are increasingly getting eroded in this era of cut-throat competition and a new genre of journalists. Verifying facts prior to publication or putting on websites are being given a go-by, impacting the right of citizens to make an informed decision.
Further, the internal procedures adopted by newspapers and magazines for verifying facts as in the early 1920s to ensure objectivity prior to publication, it is said are on the decline due to economic crisis.
At the same time, external fact checking, as per Fact-Checking as Idea and Practice in Journalism” by Oxford Research Encyclopaedia of Communication, has become prevalent over the past two decades with the growing number and visibility of websites dedicated to debunking falsehoods circulating online or repeated by politicians and other public figures.
In particular, fact-checking is an effort to combat public misinformation. The digital media environment also raises “new questions for journalists about whether to report, and how to corroborate, online rumours or reports from citizens during breaking news events…”. Fact-checking outlets, which specialise in evaluating claims from politicians, journalists, or other public sources have proliferated online in the new millennium. According to an annual census of such groups, as of February 2018, 149 non-partisan fact-checking operations were active in 53 different countries.
Over the past decade, fact-checking sites have been launched by both journalists and civil society groups around the world; Europe and South America emerged as early hubs, while Asia, Africa, and the Middle East have seen more growth in the past several years. The growth of global fact-checking operations grew by nearly 100 percent from 2014 to 2019, according to a recent census by the Duke University Reporters’ Lab. The census found 342 global fact-checkers in the world this year, compared to 277 in 2018 and, despite a slow-down in the last two years, the numbers are still growing.
The Covid-19 pandemic has put a sharper focus on ‘fact-checking’ and it has been accepted that it is critical to the media to limit spread of disinformation. Election reporting is another area which has thrown up challenges to get the focus right— as in to provide citizens with access to all facts, opinions and ideas in the campaigns so they make the right choice and not get carried away by false claims or statements, which every candidate inevitably indulges in and now more so on social media. Additionally, growing nationalism, populism and disinformation has made it more imperative to separate the wheat from the chaff. Even social network sites are getting wiser and have become cautious against misuse of their platforms for spreading fake news and have fact-checkers in place.
The International Federation of Journalists has noted: As the phenomenon of ‘fake news’ becomes more widespread, it’s essential for media professionals to have the right tools needed to face its hazards. Investigative journalism goes hand in hand with fact checking, especially when facts that can be key to public interest are often buried and inaccessible.
The media, be it print, broadcast or digital, needs to gain the trust of its readers and viewers. Journalists need to reiterate their commitment to be accurate and true as possible and guard against getting carried away by misinformation online or unverified news by rivals. Fact-checking organisations growing globally must be seen as a warning that standards are falling. Examples in the two largest and biggest democracies in the world can be ominous signs.
International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN), an umbrella organisation which monitors trends in fact checking, provides training resources and hosts a yearly conference #GlobalFact. It aims to promote best practice in fact checking and provide a place for collaboration between fact checkers worldwide. It’s catchline: “Bad information ruins lives. It promotes hate, damages people’s health, and hurts democracy. You deserve better.” Poynter Institute in Florida also houses the Pulitzer Prize-winningPolitifact which is the largest political fact-checking news organisation in the US, which has published over 16,000 fact-checks of politicians and pundits.
India too is witnessing the scrouge of fake news, which has prompted mushrooming of fact-checking organisations. FactChecker.in is India’s first dedicated Fact Check initiative, based out of Mumbai. Since early 2013, it has been “scrutinising and researching for veracity and context, statements made by individuals in public life.” Besides, picking up on issues where ‘there is a strong need to examine data that is in public domain.’ It says: “We do not like adjectives, we do not like opinion. Emotion is not our thing. Data are. Facts are. Reportage is.” It has sections such as ‘Modi-Fied”,”Modi’s Report Card” among others.
Boom, an independent digital journalism initiative to fight misinformation, explains issues and makes the internet safer by providing readers journalistically verified facts. Alt News seeks to reach out to communities as “the majority is still unaware that there is something called fact-checking.”Factly, aims to strive to transform the public information landscape in India by “improving access & understanding of the common public about important government data/information and evolve into a reliable and significant resource in the context of public information & governance.”
Social Media Hoax Slayer came up as it says:In last few years, Social Media having a wider reach and faster, started polluting human minds by anti-social elements, wrong doers, pranksters etc. Several lies are so sugar coated that one never even attempts to use ‘Common Sense’ and ultimately gets affected. Our country may get different leaders/Prime Ministers but till the people can’t have unbiased, logical mind, getting rid of the tag ‘Third World Country’ is a far cry.” It’s goal: “To achieve cleaner, logical, unbiased Indian minds free of religious and political extremism.”
The growing wave of fact-checking organisations isn’t a good omen. Misinformation or fake news is giving governments handle to bring in laws to come down heavily on independent media under its garb. Media houses and journalists need to watch out and make amends. Rather than laws, self-regulation is a better option. India is witnessing stricter policies such as ‘IT (Guidelines for Intermediary and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules 2021.’ It has been challenged on grounds of impactingindependent functioning of digital/online media. DIGIPUB News India Foundation, an association of 11 digital news media publishers, aim is to “represent, amplify and evolve best practices to build a robust digital news ecology that is truly world-class, independent and upholds the highest standards of journalism.”
It notes: “We oppose all attempts by organisations to reduce the media space by promoting fake news and using digital platforms for trolling, spreading hatred between communities and the people.” An “internal committee” providesits members “industry-wide level of self-regulation.”
Indeed, self-regulation is gaining ground. Unlike the print media, which is regulated by Press Council of India Act 1978, with objective of “preserving the freedom of the press and to maintain and improve the standards of newspapers and news agencies”, there is ‘self-regulation’ by news channels. The News Broadcasters Association, established in 2008 with aim of “fostering high standards, ethics, and practices” has constituted National Broadcasting Standards Authority (NBSA) and has ‘Code of Ethics & Broadcasting Standards’ as a model for self-regulation to avoid content that is “malicious, biased, regressive, knowingly inaccurate, hurtful, misleading or aimed at wilfully concealing a conflict of interest”. It can ‘warn, censure, or express its disapproval’ against the broadcaster and in some cases can even prescribe a fine.
In print media, a number of media houses are opting for an ‘Ombudsman’ for self-regulation.While this is welcome, much would depend on effectiveness and acceptability.Media must stick to thumb rule of being accurate and objective. Else be prepared to get increasingly ‘checked’ by governments, other than fact checkers doing their job. — INFA