A few days ago my helper Anup came to me and said he was really worried about his safety. He is from Darjeeling but to most people in Delhi, he looks like he comes from North East. With the trouble between tribals and Muslims in Assam and the purported backlash against North Eastern people in other parts of the country, he has been receiving a lot messages to take care and to return home, if feasible.
We live in one of the safest colonies in Delhi, I have not seen any signs of trouble nor have Delhi papers reported any conflict. In fact, it is well recognized that rumors of retaliation against people from North East are vastly exaggerated. Why was he worried and what could I do to assuage his fears? When I started talking to him I realized that nothing helped. Saying that newspapers or TV has not reported any trouble in Delhi (or for that matter in much of India) did not seem plausible to him. He simply said, “Papers don’t like to report trouble of this type, so one has to go by word of mouth.” Case closed as far as he is concerned; he will shop away from Muslim localities and stay as close to home as he can.
It was through this futile conversation that it struck me as to how media has managed to damage its credibility – and all with the best intention. As the country has lived through a variety of communal riots, responsible journalism and journalistic code of ethics requires that communal flames not be fanned through intense reporting of various troubles spots. Reports of riot generally do not identify specific communities involved in the riots or give numbers of causalities of various sides. This is a sensible thing to do in order to avoid fanning the flames. But in an era of mobile technology that includes texting/videos/photos, it is difficult to keep a lid on communal passions by simply blocking the news. The news will get out in some form or the other and may well be far more exaggerated than real state of affairs. It also diminishes the credibility of news media, making it ineffective when it comes to baseless rumors such as the ones Anup was referring to. Credible news media is our only defense against malicious rumors, spread either by mischievous organizations/individuals within the country or external agents.
I honestly do not know what is the right thing to do when it comes to reporting communal tensions since one is damned either way. Truthful reporting may fan the fires of hatred; sanitized reporting may be damaging to the credibility of the media. However it is clear that the code of ethics developed for an era where people could only receive, not transmit news is long gone, and along with it the era where newspapers or TV could tightly control the kind of information that is disseminated. Can we learn from the current rumors to reevaluate our policies regarding responsible reporting in this new brave world of instant communication?
August 22, 2012