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How fair is social media criticism?

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Instant online opinions impoverish our public sphere

By: A.S. Panneerselvan

Social media activists seem to have different notions about corrective action, justice and fairness. They want retribution, revenge and punishment rather than non-punitive course correction, which is the essential function of a news ombudsman. A news ombudsman adopts a light-touch approach to visibly mend mistakes. I refrain from naming the reporter while reporting errors or the subeditor in case of editing errors because the primary focus is on rectifying the mistake rather than stigmatising individuals who work under deadline pressure. A disturbing element about the shrill criticism of activists is the suggestion of overreach and breach of other rules in their overwhelming focus on a single theme.

Reporting on mental health

At 3.07 p.m. on September 30, there was a tweet that accused The Hindu of breach of law and insensitive reporting on mental health. The reference was to a Delhi report headlined, “Mentally ill woman beheads 8-month-old son”, published on April 21. Within four hours, the reader put out a second tweet saying that there was no action from The Hindu despite his earlier tweet and added that this was a shameful display of indifference. First, this activist assumed that health reporters follow him and hence, his tweet would have been noticed. Second, he did not write to the Readers’ Editor’s office, which has been designated to look into these types of lapses. Third, for reasons best known to him, he failed to mention that The Hindu report, written and edited sensitively, was published in April while the new law, the Mental Health Care Act, 2017, came into force only from July 7, 2018. The new law emphasises that the privacy of a mentally ill patient should be maintained and prohibits naming the individual. Aren’t Indian laws prospective in nature and not retrospective, unless and otherwise stated? How did The Hindu break any law if the law had come into effect after the publication of the report?

The issue gets more complicated with a newspaper like The Hindu because its online archive is available from 2000. Is it right to pull out an old story and take it down because it violates a law that came later? Can we alter our past to reflect the present? Is it right to play with archival material? Can history be moulded in such a way that all contentious issues are eschewed from the public domain? Over the last six years, I have tried to explain in detail why this newspaper generally refrains from altering or taking down a story. Does the non-existence of particular material online mean that it does not exist in any other form in the archives? What about the existence of the physical newspaper, which carries content that some readers want to take down, in not only the newspaper’s office but also various public libraries?

Activists working on a single theme tend to be oblivious to the requirements of a complex, multilayered society, which media scholars term as interlocking public, and come up with solutions that might not empower in the long run but undermine some of the wellsprings of plural coexistence.

Laws related to the newsroom

I would like to share a portion of a recent note from our senior managing editor that lists various laws relating to the newsroom. Apart from the well-documented laws of defamation — both criminal and civil — he listed more than 25 specific laws that govern reportage. For instance, contempt of court where, technically, fair criticism is allowed but there are instances of the courts being inconsistent in interpreting what is fair comment. Legislative privilege, where we are yet to codify the privileges of our elected members, is a powerful tool to keep the media on a leash. The laws relating to sexual crime, juvenile crime and crime against children are explained to every reporter and subeditor during their induction period in the newsroom. Twitter warriors may not know that a newspaper can be prosecuted under Rule 13 of the Aircraft Rules which says that “no person shall take, or cause or permit to be taken, at a government aerodrome or from an aircraft in flight, any photograph”. Instead of studied reflection, many who are active in cyberspace come up with instant opinions and impoverish our public sphere.

Courtesy The Hindu

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