Journalism, fake news and the dying art of fact checking

Ehtesham Shahid

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“Believe 100 percent of what you see, 50 percent of what you read, and zero percent of what you hear”. This cardinal rule of journalism - drilled down by a wise trainer at Mumbai University years ago - should be on the checklist of any news desk. Unfortunately, this isn’t how it is done any more.

The deluge of information and constant drive to beat the competition often leads to stories being cooked up by activists, apologists and even journalists. They make it to social media - the new laboratory of social discourse - and passed on as fact until the real facts are discovered.

Several recent incidents come to mind. A young Muslim girl in India was hounded recently for singing a Hindu devotional song. Some Muslim clerics issued statements against her. Subsequently it was reported that as many as 45 Muslim clerics issued a fatwa on the issue.

The story understandably went viral. Politicians and activists denounced the edict and police even promised to look into its terror connection. The girl in question went live on TV expressing her determination to continue singing.

The fact remains that when, as journalists, we fail to fact-check stories as and when they originate, we become part of a process through which nations can go to war on faulty information

Ehtesham Shahid

The only problem was that there was no such fatwa but just a pamphlet calling for boycott of a cultural event in which she was supposed to sing. Basically, no one bothered to check or call any of the clerics involved and just kept perpetuating the story.

Another report in India recently claimed that a youth, who has been missing for a year, searched for information to join a terror outfit. The family of the boy, which has been appealing the authorities to find the boy, were confronted with a different reality. This was again taken as gospel truth till the time police clarified that no terror link has been established.

Fake news complex

These may be isolated, even rare, examples but the fact remains that when, as journalists, we fail to fact-check stories as and when they originate, we become part of a process through which nations can go to war on faulty information. This applies to all nations and societies.

The West, primarily the United States, has had its fair share of what is coming to be known as fake news complex. Britain’s Independent reported recently that Russia hired 1,000 people to create anti-Clinton “fake news” in key US states during election. There is also a growing realization that this is a challenge that needs to be addressed.

Content ownership is another area that deserves mention. Sometimes, it seems credibility and reliability in digital media come too low down the value chain. A bit of rumor packaged with a suspect graphic or a doctored photo, distributed via a fake twitter handle can really go places. One can always prop-up non-existent followers to take the message forward. At the end of it all though, no one really owns up a cooked or distorted story because facts is always sacrosanct.

But is this an entirely new phenomenon? From planted stories to compromised editorials and lopsided reporting, unethical practices in journalism are as old as the mountains.

Sometimes they take the form of what Chomsky calls “manufacturing consent”. On other occasions, they are less organized but more nefarious and involve tampering of evidence and/or selective reporting. I recall several occasions when accuracy has been sacrificed because of selective reporting or overstating of one side while hiding others.

The bad apples

It is not the bad apples though that should define the media industry as a whole. I have long maintained that the media, just like art, is a reflection of society. It is not possible for all journalists to be “clean” in an inherently corrupt society and vice versa.

The level and quality of discourse in a society is bound to reflect in the tone and tenor of its media coverage. The only rider to this is the man-on-the-street today using technology to express, even influence, debates. If a handful of editors could tilt the balance and trigger the collapse of a government generations ago, it is now a far bigger and more representative battlefield.

Some people argue that social media brings people from around the world closer. Far from it. My two cents on this is that it may bring the educated, successful and well-meaning people closer, but is more of a nuisance for a lot of others.

In fact, it even ends up building something now being referred as the “digital tribe”. This happens simply because we take eyes off facts and follow a tunnel vision adopted by many others of the same mindset.

A leading Turkish journalist-turned-author has a simple prescription. She has chosen to stay away from the media to focus on writing as she is happy to engage in dialogue with critics who actually read her books. She prefers this to dealing with so-called “social media butterflies” who believe their 140-character intervention can change the world.

Tweeps or otherwise, people will show faith in the media only when we stick to corroborating and cross-checking facts before reporting them.
Ehtesham Shahid is Managing Editor at Al Arabiya English. For close to two decades he has worked as editor, correspondent, and business writer for leading publications, news wires and research organizations in India and the Gulf region. He loves to occasionally dabble with teaching and is collecting material for a book on unique tales of rural conflict and transformation from around the world. His twitter handle is @e2sham.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.