How to spot and stop Hate in the Newsroom What can journalists do to stand up to senior staff against biased news coverage?

21, Jun 2022 | CJP Team

Indians live in peculiar, hate-filled times when the climate of targeted othering, hate, segregation, and even socio-economic boycott, has reached unprecedented levels. The State, purportedly wedded to the Indian Constitution and its ideals of an egalitarian, non-discriminatory social order, has abdicated itself from its responsibility to protect all citizens, and is allegedly encouraging mobs to violate the fundamental right to a life of dignity of some of India’s most vulnerable and marginalized people.

How do we, as Indians, tackle this, even as colleagues and friends, small and big businesses persons, professionals and entrepreneurs are packing up to leave the country of their ancestors and birth? India’s citizens have to re-build, brick by brick, the inherent culture of egalitarian co-existence that has been in existence since before India formally became a Republic on January 26, 1950.

That requires constant engagement and course correction, firmly speaking out. CJP believes in arming the ordinary Indian with the wherewithal to do this in everyday ways, to ensure that a growing resistance is built up, brick by brick.

CJP is dedicated to finding and bringing to light instances of Hate Speech, so that the bigots propagating these venomous ideas can be unmasked and brought to justice. To learn more about our campaign against hate speech, please become a member. To support our initiatives, please donate now!

In our previous resource we had touched upon how one can prevent their family and friends from falling prey to the hateful agenda of rightwing extremists and politicians. Now we look at the role journalists can play in checking the spread of hate in the newsroom, so that it never makes it to our airwaves or print. This is especially pertinent in wake of a steady decline in India’s rankings in the World Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders (RSF). India fell to 150 out of a total of 180 countries in 2022!

Very often media houses have political patrons, some publications and channels are expressly run to be mouthpieces of the politician or party concerned. These are easy to spot as they make no bones about their agenda, and in fact, attract a steady stream of ‘talent’ that is devoted to furthering it. If you subscribe to an extremist ideology, then there is no further need to argue as long as you realise you will not be working as a journalist, even if your designation at the organisation says otherwise.

But what is unfortunately more common these days is that organisations that may have started out with the right idea about what constitutes journalism, are now sacrificing their values, either to draw or retain patronage of powerful politicians and their crony business houses for advertising revenue. Big business monopolies (maybe 20 in number) now control much of the media business. It is often in these organisations that journalists, particularly those who are either just starting out, or those who are yet not established enough to risk losing their jobs, find themselves being in a difficult, often untenable situation.

Interestingly, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has issued a paper on “Issues Relating to Media Ownership”, April 2022 (the last one was in 2013) and invited comments by June 28, 2022.

What to do when you are assigned the story?

Ideally, journalists pitch their own stories and this is where you have greater control over the peg (central idea) of the story. Very often, an attempt is made at the morning editorial meeting itself to give the story a desired editorial angle, many editors even decide on possible headlines at this point, even though the reporter has not even stepped out to investigate the story. While this is premature and even unethical, rebelling at this stage would only serve to labelling you as a “problematic” and “unprofessional” reporter who “says no to everything”. So, listen to what your editors want, nod vigorously and even take notes if that is what it takes to convince them you are enthusiastic about the story. But do what is right once you step out, because they cannot control you on the field.

What to do while following the story?

Those who have attended specialised courses for journalism are familiar with the 5Ws and 1H. For those who are self-taught or untrained, remember that a story is about six important elements – Who, when, what, where, why and how? These will determine the facts of the story.

Additionally, you must verify information from at least two independent sources. The strongest stories are based on verified facts obtained from primary sources i.e people closest to the story. These could be affected people, the police or fire officer on the spot, eye-witnesses etc. Next come secondary sources such as other publications reporting on the story. Here it is important to check if that publication has any problematic political leanings that could colour their reportage. It is best to once again contact and verify information from their primary sources mentioned in the story, if for nothing else than an update. Tertiary resources refer to studies and reports about trends and historical elements related to wider aspects of a story. These should only be sourced from reputable organisations; peer-reviewed publications have greater credibility.

Finally, one must remember that a story can always have more than two sides, and reportage is not about he said-she said, but what actually happened. If Mr. A says it is raining, and Mr. B says it is not, your job is to step outside and see if it is raining, and also check weather data for confirmation.

It can get tricky while covering a communal clash, when often a reporter might find their mobility to be limited. But that only means you do your story in parts as it is developing any way. Taking into account safety concerns and police permissions, try to actually visit different neighbourhoods with residents hailing from different socio-cultural and religious backgrounds.

Today, the social media and especially Whatsapp, plays a role in either fomenting a communal conflict or in aggravating such a potentially volatile situation. For example, rumours of “child-lifters” (kidnappers) circulating on Whatsapp, led to a man being lynched by a mob in Bihar. The fact that he was Muslim exacerbated his ordeal. Never mind that the allegations turned out to be false.

While factoring the role of this medium that has a real time consequence, it is important to understand that nothing in the report filed should play into the conflict, instead it should help to dispel it.

Here are a few examples of journalism done right:

In this news report, India Today used a video taken before the stone pelting at Jahangirpuri to show how the Shobha Yatris were already brandishing swords and pistols, suggesting they came armed for a fight.

Similarly, in this series of videos tweeted by journalist Tanushree Pandey, police officials can be seen bullying the Hathras rape victim’s parents to cremate the body.

Police then forcibly cremated the body in the dead of the night, against the family’s wishes. Pandey then tweeted a video of the cremation.

There are several fact-checking websites, you can consult when you find your spidey senses tingling – such as Atl News, Boom Live, India Today’s Anti Fake News War Room (AFWA) and CJP’s own Hate Busters. All of these resources can help journalists when something about a story appears to be too good to be true or appears hopelessly one-sided.

What to do when filing / scripting the story?

While it is natural for everyone to harbour a variety of biases, one must never let these impact the reportage of the story. Both explicit and implicit biases are often visible in the initial parts of the story itself, such as the headline, strapline and first paragraph of text stories, and opening voiceover and images in a video report. It is here that the reporter should be most careful and nip such biases in the bud, as biased reportage is both, unethical and unprofessional.

Reportage must be accurate, fair and balanced, and the tone and tenor should be professional. A good rule of thumb is to go through your first draft and then systematically delete all unnecessary adjectives and adverbs. Often it is impossible to remain neutral in face of blatant injustice, but communally charged, gendered, caste-based or homophobic language must be avoided at all times.

For example: If you are reporting on communal violence that took place when a rally organised by right-wing groups passed through a minority community neighbourhood and rally participants hurled communal slurs at residents, your headline should not say “Rally of Community A attacked by Community B in X city”, as it squarely blamed Community B and does not reflect ground realities pertaining to provocation. A better headline would be “Communal clashes in X city after extremists allegedly chant anti-Community B slogans during rally”. The strapline can expand upon how this happened when rally by Community was passing through a Community B neighbourhood.

Another example: If you are reporting a case of intimate partner sexual violence where both the perpetrator and survivor belong to the same sex or gender, then a headline like “Gay man nabbed for raping boyfriend” should be avoided. Instead, it should say, “Man detained for allegedly sexually assaulting same-sex partner”.

One of the most shocking examples of blatant journalistic bias disguised as a “joke” came from Times Now anchor Navika Kumar who tweeted the following in wake of the demolition drive following the Jahangirpuri communal violence:

If a senior editor tries to pressure you to give the story a distinct communal, caste, gendered or homophobic colour, this is where you can confront them with facts and evidence. This confrontation doesn’t have to be emotionally charged. You can politely inform them that you have enough evidence contrary to their claim, or that your way is fairer and more balanced. If pushed, then categorically ask them if they are ordering you to ignore the evidence and do a one-sided story? Such a conversation held within the earshot of other colleagues can often shame the senior person into withdrawing pressure as it publicly brings into question their intentions and professionalism as a journalist.

Biases can affect anyone. So, if you are doing a decidedly anti-establishment story, remember while it is important to speak truth to power, you always need hard evidence; your story cannot be based on mere conjecture, or your general dislike of the person you are criticising. You should not abuse your power as a journalist to engage in libel or defamation.

What to do if you are an anchor/presenter?

An anchor’s job isn’t limited to wearing make-up and reading off of a teleprompter. An anchor has a lot of power and can help bring about greater fairness and balance by simply putting their foot down and refusing to use polarising language or ask blatantly biased questions.

A calm demeanor, and not one that is high pitched and aggressive, can make all the difference to both the tenor and quality of the debate. Inevitably one sees that extreme views of all kinds thrive in a climate of high decibel aggression, but if the anchor’s tone is sober and firm, there are less chances for outrageous, provocative and even hate-filled views to be expressed.

It is always advisable to be more involved in the rundown (a computer programme that controls a news broadcast and contains the text of everything an anchor reads out from the teleprompter), and even make changes to lead-ins that you are expected to read out, as well as captions, headlines, ticker etc. If you think anything is not balanced, raise it with the producer before the show and make necessary changes before the rundown is locked.

If you are moderating a debate, ensure representation from all interest groups relevant to the debate. This should not be a checkbox approach where you get the first person you can find instead of ensuring if they are qualified to represent the interests of their group/community. Often media houses pressure guest coordinators to invite only the most polarising speakers and then use their diatribe to paint an entire community with the same brush. Anchors should also give everyone adequate opportunity to share their opinion and make their case. Finally, anchors should be mindful of their own biases, and not allow them to cloud their judgment or colour the debate.

Television and Digital Media anchors are usually found sorely wanting in any in-depth knowledge of the Indian Constitution or law. This gross limitation lowers the quality of the debate entirely.

For example, when the socio-economic boycott of Muslim vendors and shopkeepers and butchers is being encouraged, few asked the question about the relevant laws and Acts such as Article 14, 15, 16, 21 and 25 of the Indian Constitution, or how courts have treated such unconstitutional and discriminatory measures in the past. This shallow level of coverage of what is turning out to be active progression in a genocidal pyramid, as it normalises the criminality and abuse of best practices and laws, that are insidiously taking place.

CJP’s consistent monitoring of Television and You-Tube content has ensured some degree of correction and moderation enters the electronic media arena. You can view some of our recent successes here.

All these deliberations, that CJP argued out meticulously, first in the written complaint, rejoinder to the channels/social media platforms and then in written and oral submissions relying on journalistic standards and ethics laid down by statutory and other professional authorities.

Omission reflects Bias

The best example of this was when most television debates failed to ask vital questions about identity politics, body policing and patriarchy when debating the Hijab Ban, and focused only on the angle of religion. The ensuing debated therefore lacked nuance and served only to further Islamophobia and faith-based polarisation.

How to cover Hate Speech

The basic rules of covering hate speech are the same as reporting anything.

Rule-1: Stick to the facts!

Hate Speech is disgusting in itself, and does not usually need any editorial comments added when reporting. However, do add a ‘trigger warning’ if the hate speech is violent in nature, threatens or instigates violence, is verbally abusive, or is graphic and sexual in nature.

Rule-2: Name the person making the hate speech

This is important, as very often reports only end up naming the person who may have shared it, especially on social media. This allows the actual hate speech maker to dodge consequences of their words. Also, remember to add links or screen grabs of the hate speech as evidence. Also downloaded media and save it, as sometimes, the post might be deleted.

Rule-3: Clearly state what was hateful

Your story must showcase exactly what the hate speechmaker said. Quote / post the video or audio the original with a translation if needed. Verify all hate speech for authenticity. Check multiple sources to confirm the veracity. If inappropriate language was used it can be beeped out or censored, but do download and save the original video, as it serves as evidence.

Rule-4: Add context based on timing and location

Where the hate speech delivered and when are crucial to a well-rounded narrative. If something was said outside a place of worship, or said during an election campaign, it adds value to your analysis. It is also important as it adds context in case the hate speech is followed by communal unrest, attack on women, Dalits, or even vandalism. It is also important to delve into history at this point and report on previous instances if any of similar hate speech. It is also important to pick up on words or terms that have been used in the past to instigate violence along the lines you see now. E.g: The use of the term “pure races” in the past indicates a call for ethnic cleaning, or a call to “take up swords to protect cows” indicates a communal angle. If the hate speech maker has used these terms, it suggests impunity that may be born of a tacit assurance of protection against consequences.

Rule-5: Quotes from law-enforcement

Sometimes people file First Information Reports (FIRs) against hate speech. Other times, there might be an outbreak of violence or apprehension thereof. Either way, police get involved and it is important to find out what action is being taken by them, and report this crucial element. However, bear in mind that only police officials above a certain rank are allowed to give quotes to the press, and there is no point in demanding quotes or responses from junior police officials.

In fact, it doesn’t have to end there. You can advise your publication or channel to take the initiative to report hate speech to authorities. Sometimes, television news reporters might come across calls for violence while reporting live from the ground. In such cases, your video serves as evidence. So, if you come across a hate speech in a live setting, that calls for murder, rape, ethnic cleansing, or vandalism, discuss with your editor and alert the law enforcement authorities. On social media you can also alert authorities by tagging the official handles of local police, political parties, and human rights activists.

Rule-6: Legal angle should be explained

It is always a good idea to get a lawyer or legal scholar to explain what law has been broken and what are the possible consequences. This is an expert opinion, and adds value instead of generic commentary.

Small acts of defiance

This is where copy editors can play a role. Taking a heavily editorialised and biased copy and turning it into a version that brings greater fairness and balance is a rare skill and should never be wasted. Most of the time, copies and scripts go straight from the copy editor to print or video editing and chances of sabotage by senior editors and other vested interests are very limited. Therefore, if you are a copy editor and you come across biased or communal reportage, it is up to you to make the story more balanced, temper its tone and tenor. After all, a copy editor is not a glorified spellchecker.

Another good way to ensure that if your work is mangled or butchered by senior editors with biases and political agendas, you still have evidence of the original unbiased copy, is to forward a copy of your original story to your personal email. This is just to keep a record in case your organisation locks you out of your email or designated computer. Many organisations have acted unprofessionally against defiant reporters and then throw them under the bus using trumped up charges. It is best to have evidence to defend yourself in such cases.

Use social media to share key elements from your original story and relevant evidence. Don’t forget to tag relevant authorities. Write to human rights organisations and autonomous bodies that work towards protecting and defending the rights of the people whose story you were trying to tell but were prevented from doing by your organisation.

If you want to get a little more confrontational, share your experience if you have enough evidence against the person/people who bullied you to file a biased report. It is not defamation if it is true. If you have proper evidence, the law cannot be used against you. Yes, you could lose your current job, but your reputation as a fearless journalist will get solidified and help you get a job with a better organisation.

Also raise questions about lack of representation in the newsroom at appropriate fora. If you find that your newsroom has no or few people from historically oppressed castes, tribes and communities, or if there are few or no reporters hailing from religious, ethnic or sexual minorities, speak up about it.

Call out your colleagues for their biases. Don’t laugh at communal or sexist jokes, instead ask why they think it is funny? They might alienate you, but then again, ask yourself – are you here to make friends or be a journalist? And can you truly be a journalist if you don’t question those around you? Validation is irrelevant in the larger scheme of things for a journalist, only honest, accurate, fair and balanced reportage matter, as it is these things that build your reputation, not rumours spread by colleagues and superiors.

But, always remember, you must respect the law and never violate it in any way yourself. All your actions must be peaceful and should remain within the purview of the law.

Image Courtesy: sundayguardianlive.com

Related:

How to be an ally to minorities

Arm yourself with knowledge, not tridents, swords or knives

 

 

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