Once upon a time, in a place not so far away, lived a little boy who herded sheep. Each day, he would take his sheep out to graze to the hills nearby, and sit and watch them eat, frolic, play and rest. In the evening, he would get them back to the sheep pen. This was an age before smartphones, and internet, and the boy didn’t have too much to do beyond watch his sheep. He began thinking, wouldn’t it be nice to have company, have some company for some time; have people listen to me instead of sheep. He decided the best way to attract a (human) following, was to create a panic. He shouted in a loud voice “Wolf, Wolf”. The villagers came running, dropping whatever they were doing. The wolf posed a great danger to their lives, and livelihood. It also threatened their way of life, and they really didn’t want to go back to living in fear of the wolf, and other wild animals. They rushed and found no wolf. They chided the young boy for lying, and said, do this again, and no one will trust you. The boy appeared duly chastened, but that did not make him mend his ways. A few weeks later, he again shouted “wolf, wolf”. The villagers turned up again to chase away the wolf. After all, they thought, who would be stupid enough to do something like this twice in a row. When they reached there, there was no wolf. They went back, muttering, to their work. The third time, the wolf really appeared. The boy shouted “wolf, wolf”. But, nobody bothered turning up. After all, who wants to be made a fool again and again. The wolf made a tasty meal of a foolish boy and a fat lamb. And, that was the end of the boy who cried wolf.
This ancient fable, that is common across cultures, comes to mind whenever I see mainstream media go into a tizzy on a story, only to retract a few days later. In an era of digital and social distribution of news and other content, it is impossible to stop a fake story from going viral, especially if the topic is easy to relate to. For example, food portions at restaurants. A couple of days ago, the news carried by a mainstream daily, was on the Government mulling the restriction of food portions in restaurants, to curb the real issue of wastage. The story turned out to be very loosely related to the truth. The Government wasn’t mulling imposing restrictions on food being served; it was looking at getting eateries to declare the quantity that was going to be served. People who don’t seem to be affiliated to political parties, took to social media to debunk this. The other story that turned out to be fake, almost immediately was the one on Mr Tharoor working with Mrs Swaraj to draft a response against Pakistan, on the issue of Kulbhushan Jadhav’s death sentence. Mrs Swaraj took to twitter to deny it.
The problem with stories turning out to be fake, is that you no longer know what is true. Are we, the readers, meant to verify everything MSM puts out? We are not even talking about bias in reportage, or opinion. We are talking about incorrect reportage – content that is factually wrong.
One way of looking at this is to say, to err is human. And, the media is made up of human beings who make mistakes. However, in an era where lies travel at the speed of electrons, across the globe, when truth is still figuring where the starter block is, you need a bit more responsibility from editorial managers.
The media is the fourth pillar of democracy. And, its job is to be the watchdog on behalf of the people. It is supposed to keep an eye on the ‘system’ for us. This is why the media is allocated a place of pride in most societies. However, if the media is going to bark at every shadow, and scream “Forest razed” every time a leaf falls, we are going to have a situation where people no longer heed what the media says. And, if consumers don’t consume the media, because we don’t trust it, the media will not be able to earn revenues. And, the like boy who cried wolf, the media too will disappear, alone, with no one even noticing it has gone. (Harini Calamur is a writer, teacher and film-maker. She tweets at @calamur)
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