The challenge of reporting propaganda

A mischievous and selective presentation of facts can sometimes be more dangerous for democracy than pure lies

Updated - May 17, 2024 10:35 am IST

Published - May 17, 2024 01:34 am IST

In the pre-digital era, falsehoods and misinformation had a short, localised life. Now, technology enables falsehoods to travel across continents, and remain eternally alive. File

In the pre-digital era, falsehoods and misinformation had a short, localised life. Now, technology enables falsehoods to travel across continents, and remain eternally alive. File | Photo Credit: Reuters

Campaigns by parties or companies are not about facts and truths, but about turning public opinion. Election campaigns often bring out the worst in our political leaders and create a particularly challenging situation for journalists who consider facts sacred. What leaders say during elections are largely kernels of truth that are puffed up so that they can claim superhuman qualities, or engage in scaremongering, or slander their opponents. When these statements are abstractions, such as someone is communal or good or bad for the country, there is nothing a journalist can do or perhaps needs to do, other than merely reporting it.

In the pre-digital era, falsehoods and misinformation had a short, localised life. Now, technology enables falsehoods to travel across continents, and remain eternally alive. What can journalism do in this scenario? How can journalists report a speech that contains falsehoods? Is it okay to merely reproduce what has been said? Is it okay to ignore the leader who is making the false statement? Can a leader’s speech be fact-checked real time?

Indian elections:Tracking misinformation, AI misuse and safeguards

When statements are distortions, not white lies, what can reporters do? If a leader who is about to assume power spouts lies, is it responsible journalism to black out those statements? Is it sufficient to counter-pose one statement to the other — for instance, leader X said the ‘sun rises in the east’ and leader Y said the ‘sun rises in the west?’

When a statement which must be reported is factually wrong, the reporting must explain it, ideally by quoting sources. For instance, what the Bharatiya Janata Party says about the Congress manifesto can be easily verified. But when it says India would have been a superpower if Sardar Patel and not Jawaharlal Nehru had become the first Prime Minister, there is nothing a journalist can do apart from reporting that statement.

But more than lies, misinformation and misinterpretation are greater threats as fact-checking may not help in such cases; providing context and explaining the background of the piece of information is more valuable. A case in point is the recent cacophony over Muslim population growth. A mischievous and selective presentation of facts can sometimes be more dangerous for democracy than pure lies because the claim of factual accuracy is also made along with it.

This also leads us to the point of numbers never lying. Diametrically opposite arguments about the economy proliferate, all of them using numbers, tables, and graphs. Taking surveys and data as unquestionable containers of truth or facts is not entirely free of problems, as Rukmini S. explains in her book Whole Numbers and Half Truths. For instance, surveys that attempt to quantify qualitative attributes such as communalism or pluralism may not necessarily capture the reality. Will any communal bigot admit to being one, to a surveyor? Numbers and data can help a journalist arrive at a fuller picture, but not the full picture. All this makes the reporting of election campaigns both challenging and fascinating.

To bring the best factual and unbiased picture to the audience, a journalist will have to use data, context, and background information in a skillful manner. Counter propaganda masquerading as journalism is as dangerous to journalism as propaganda which, by definition, is not bound by facts.

varghese.g@thehindu.co.in

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