MEDIA AMID THE PANDEMIC : PAIN OR RELIEF

By Mansi Soni and Vishabh Gola

(20/05/2020 20:00 IST)

The crisis of covid-19 is hovering over the world. Nobody had predicted that tiny micro-organisms will bring the entire human race on its knee. As of now, cases of infected people have surpassed 46 Lakh and over 3 lakh people have lost their lives across the world. Almost all the economic, social, and political activities have been halted. Everyone is supposed to strictly adhere to the lockdown norms of social distancing, frequent hand washing and mask wearing. I know, our readers are well-versed with all these facts. But, what do you think, how are we so much updated with all such related facts? Yes, through media.

It is the media, which is even in these testing times, trying hard to keep us informed of all the happenings, whether it is about the numbers of cases and deaths or the government policies and strategies to mitigate this catastrophe. Journalist across the globe are putting their health and for some, their lives at risk in order to cover the pandemic from the front lines. Huffpost India reported on 28 April 2020 that at least 53 journalists, including reporters, cameramen of news channels and photojournalists, have tested positive for covid-19. Undoubtedly, pandemic journalism is an act of courage and hard work.

A century ago, media faced the challenge of covering an unprecedented disease outbreak, Spanish influenza, which ultimately took nearly an estimated 650,000 lives in the US and more than 50 million lives around the world. But instead of effectively warning the people by educating them on how the disease spreads, how to identify common symptoms and what preventive measures were feasible, media (newspapers, news channels etc.) Sensationalized the disease. Washington Post headlines told: "47 more die from flu" on Oct, 10, "72 die, record for district", on Oct, 11, "1594 new cases", on October 12. The deluge of numbers became the attention grabbing headlines, but these numbers and stories of deaths did little to convey what preventive measures the public could take, instead exaggerated the risk of death from the disease. Headlines about the death or sensational stories about those who died helped create the anxiety and panic among people.

In fact, the ongoing outbreak of novel coronavirus has received extensive media coverage that initially bred fear among public. LexisNexis UK database says that 100 high-circulation newspapers from around the world, which have collectively published 9,387 stories about the outbreak, of these 1066 articles mention "fear" or related words "afraid". Such stories often used other frightening languages- for example, 50 articles used the phrase "killer virus". I believe, up to some extent, inducing fear among the public is imperative, as it warns them of the gravity of the situation. But it should not cross certain limits because then it begins to make things worse, like in several countries, people resorted to hoarding of face masks, sanitation products and food items in the fear that necessities will no longer be accessible.

But unlike 1918, this time, the media have carefully emphasized on dissemination of preventive measures. For example -most radio channels like Aakashvani rainbow, fever FM and Big FM etc., have created programs where health experts share their opinions and suggestions and answer the covid-19 related queries.

Coronavirus has left billions stuck at home. At such time, people can be seen as the most anguish as they have more leisure time than required. A research on the psychological impact of pandemic have shown that living in the lockdown can expose people to stress, anxiety and boredom. At this critical juncture, the media has also entrusted it with the responsibility of keeping their boredom at bay. It has come out as the companion to the people at home. Fever FM radio network is asking people to pick up a new skill or passion during lockdown in the "Kuchh naya karona" segment. "So Sorry: Jitega India", politoons series by India today group is entertaining the people. Doordarshan re-aired Ramanand Sagar's Ramayana along with the slew of other popular old shows like Mahabharat, Chanakya, Shaktimaan etc. It was speculated that the stories of the Ramayan and other related tales might sound dramatic to new generation as they have more interest in practical life and technology. But surprisingly, this generation showed greater interest in them. Moreover, Ramayana became the world's most watched show on April 16 with 7.7 crore viewers.

As the world fights covid-19, "infodemic" of fake news also seems to be spreading along with the virus. Social media platforms like WhatsApp, Facebook, and Twitter are the major carriers of this fake news virus. Moreover, use of the social media has increased exponentially during this lockdown period. Several falsehoods, including miracle preventive measures, false claims about implementation of martial law, conspiracy theories and more are being circulated through the social media. For example, a 30 seconds video on TikTok shows an individual wearing a face mask comments gargling with salt and vinegar hot water as a cure for coronavirus, who then urges rapid spread of this message.

An analysis by fact checking website "BOOM" has found that most of the covid-19 related misinformation were shared through the videos (35%), images (29%), text messaging (29%) and audio clips (2%) on social media. Some of the misinformation are news reports (4%) done by the mainstream media organizations. Although, their share in spreading misinformation is low, but their impact is much larger than that of the social media. For instance- several false allegations against Muslims of purposefully spreading the virus, appeared in April after several members of the Tablighi Jamaat tested positive for the virus following the congregation in Delhi in mid-March. But unmindful of devastating consequences, some irresponsible news reporters and news anchors further fueled such unverified allegations by directly holding the Tablighi Jamaat responsible for spreading the virus. The opening monologue of Arnab Goswami on Republic TV can be quoted here because it mirrored the coverage on most English and Hindi news channels in the framing of the event as a Muslim conspiracy to defeat India. “They made fun of our national effort. They have compromised us all, we were just winning when they did everything to defeat us,” fumed Goswami. “They have been spreading hate against the lockdown and told their followers to do everything possible to defy the lockdown”. There was little doubt that “they” here stood in for Muslims.

Certain sections of the media, instead of exercising restraint, reported the entire incident with a communal flavor, with phrases such as “Corona ON Jihad”, “Corona Terrorism”, “Islamic Insurrection”, “Corona bombs” etc. And the result was before our eyes that the entire Muslim community was being blamed and socially boycotted for the mistake of some. But it was not like that, nobody impeded such biased reporting. The Jamiat Ulama-I-Hind – one of the leading Islamic organizations belonging to the Deobandi school of thought -- has filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in the Supreme Court, to prevent the communalization of the Nizamuddin Markaz issue by certain sections of print and electronic media. The petition has alleged that baseless allegations and fake reports have triggered communal hatred.

A bench headed by CJI SA Bobde agreed to examine the plea and asked Jamiat Ulama-I-Hind to, the implied Press Council of India in its petition so that the media regulator's opinion could be taken while hearing the case.

When it comes to curb the spread of fake news, then there are many fact checking websites like boom, Alt news, Factly etc. But they are just like few drops in an Ocean. Therefore, media should itself adhere to its ethics honestly. After all, it is the fourth pillar of our democracy. It should be influential, trustworthy and unbiased at the same time. For now, everyone should abstain from stepping out and should take all precautionary measures to prevent the spread of viruses (i.e. covid-19 and fake news).

About Authors.

Mansi Soni

Desk Editor

Vishabh Gola

Desk Editor

References.

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