Fake news, sting operations and digital media—in conversation with Shweta Kothari7 min read
Shweta Kothari, Managing Editor of The Logical Indian and experienced journalist, reached out to the minds of the student audience at a talk on ‘Digital Media as a Source of Information’ on February 20 at Manipal Institute of Communication (MIC). The talk was part of Article-19, MIC’s flagship media event.
Being a former news anchor and senior correspondent for NewsX, her experience in the field of journalism and digital media served as insight on the importance of true and factual news, as well as the role of the digital medium in helping do so.
In speaking with The Manipal Journal, Shweta Kothari talked about her personal viewpoints surrounding investigative journalism, fake news, and the significant role of presenting all sides of an issue to the people of the country.
Talking specifically about the reach of digital media in today’s news world as well as the extent of fake news in terms of viral content, do you think there is a need for an ‘Alt News’ and the like to exist, for and within every media body?
The way I see it today, there is a definitive excess of fake news from both user-generated content as well as established representatives of various regional and national political parties. The amount of fake news is massive as opposed to the number of fact-checkers, most of which are limited to only Hindi or English content. We need more fact-checking organisations and we also need them to broaden their work to the regional languages.
I did a bit of a study on fake news during my process of writing a book, and that was when I realised that most fake news is almost always circulated on WhatsApp and the like, in regional languages. By the time national media takes cognisance, that particular news has already possibly spread virally and even cost a life. This was the case in Assam’s Karbi Anglong where two young men were thrashed to death by a mob, surrounding rumours that they were child-lifters. In Jharkhand, seven people died in a single day thanks to fake news. These are just a few instances, and it has continued to happen over the last decade, but thankfully in 2020 so far, we haven’t heard news of death due to fake news. However, there are other larger issues surrounding fake news and propaganda, with lots of hate being spread daily.
Tell us a little about what it takes as a good journalist. Being emotionally invested in your line of work, how does one cope with the harsh realities of some cases like you have mentioned before?
Ideally, as journalists, we aren’t supposed to be involved emotionally in any story, but we are all human after all, so it does take a toll on us. As a human being itself, when we see things happening around us that shouldn’t happen, that is unjust, it very much takes a toll on us. However, journalism is not activism. We need to draw the line there. We have the responsibility and need to show that there are two sides to every story, and unlike activists who are solely focused on trying to take the seemingly right side of the story, us journalists have a larger role to play in the interest of the country as a whole, which is by giving both or all sides of every story.
Taking any case as an example, like the CAA/NRC issues happening in the country, we need to tell people both sides of the story—what happened, why did it happen, the pros and the cons. Regardless of how much I personally dislike the idea of a divisive law being passed by a parliament, I have to give my audience the other side of the story too, which says it helps certain individuals and persecuted minorities in three different countries.
Most of us have read about certain sting operations that you have conducted over the course of your career as a reporter. Are there any set journalistic ethics involved in sting operations and investigative journalism in place?
Investigative journalism, especially in the past few months, has given us some very good stories and insights. Like in the case wherein the students in JNU were beaten up; within all that controversy, IndiaToday did a sting where ABVP members were intercepted to be the rioters. That’s good journalism. Where the police have not been able to nab anyone yet but your media has already been successful in getting you the culprits.
There are ethics in investigative journalism. Most of the time the identity needs to be concealed and most times there will be a backlash, like in one of my personal cases. But there is this issue of crossing a few lines that we have to be willing to do in terms of investigating, with proper reasons as to why we do it, as is mentioned in the Press Council of India guidelines. If a sting operation is in the larger interest of the country and is an endeavour to bring out the truth about any news item that is important in the interest of public discourse then you can and you should do your part.
Like in the many cases of media exaggeration, do you think media had a pivotal role in painting the image of JNU being an ‘anti-national’ institute?
Our country needs students just as much it needs jawans in the border, and in this case yes, I do think the media had a terrible role to play, in terms of painting JNU as a hotbed of leftist and Maoist concerns. We may have people studying in JNU with certain political identities or opinions, most of which were largely leftist in this case, which is why the entire university was branded leftist. Having said that, everybody has the right to speak up in terms of their opinions and you can’t brand an entire university in any manner. It is unbecoming of media professionals to target universities on the basis of student ideologies and target specifically the few colleges that are protesting against the Central Government’s policies.
These universities have been put under constant limelight and scrutiny by the government as their students actively speak up, but since when did our country have a problem with students speaking up? Moreover, why is the ruling government forgetting that half of their leaders were student politicians at one time, including the late Arun Jaitley and current Prime Minister Narendra Modi?
If you as leaders started your career in student politics, why do you now have a problem with students in politics and keep telling them to go back to their classrooms?
As a young woman in today’s media industry, what is the value of speaking up when in opposition?
Speaking up is absolutely essential. It is not just one’s constitutional right but rather a practice that you must adopt very early on. We are in a society that has failed our kids and our students by always telling them ‘don’t retort’, ‘don’t answer back’. That is Indian culture. Growing up, my parents regularly told me not to ask too many questions. That isn’t how it is supposed to be, is it? How would we as a nation build strong, independent young kids while stopping them from questioning the things around them?
I think the narrative has to change right from the upbringing, and we need to have strong, opinionated people. If we resist the need and flow of questioning, then we are driving them towards being complacent towards news and life in general.
How does one cope with the vast differences in opinion in every aspect of the journalistic world? Now that you have stepped into the digital field, how different has your experience been between that and mainstream broadcast media?
I think it is very valuable to make use of the freedom that we have been given in this nation and use it to benefit both ourselves and the people.
My experience has been very different in the two fields. TV media often tends to have political affiliations or ideologies and doesn’t always allow journalists to do what they really want to do. Digital media, on the other hand, has given me that freedom and space in many aspects.
Shweta Kothari’s words on journalistic ethics and the need for an opinionated and factually sound nation hit the right notes in terms of relevance in today’s world. Drawing from her personal experiences and achievements, her message to the young aspiring journalists is to normalise a ‘questioning’ culture and speak up in times of injustice, disbanding indoctrination regardless of personal ideologies or affiliations.
Featured Image Courtesy: Siri Spandana
Edited by: Rayna Lele
With inputs from the Article-19 Newsletter Team.