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June 27, 2017

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In a post-truth world, credible media is more important than ever

NEW DELHI -- The landslide verdict in Uttar Pradesh has outfoxed most political pundits. The reportage of the elections and predictions that accompanied it shows much of Indian political journalism seems to be living in the "post-truth" world. The Oxford dictionary designated "post-truth" as the word of 2016 — an adjective which means "relating to circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than emotional appeals."

How ridiculously off the mark the predictions for UP were. What went wrong? Is it the failure of news gathering and data from the ground, a duty which the modern media is increasingly abdicating? Is it the over-dependence on social media which political journalists seem to spend a disproportionate amount of time on? Or is it what American journalist, Sean Trende described in the wake of the Brexit reportage which too was off the mark, as the "unthinkability bias" — not being able to report the truth simply because you wish it were otherwise.

That unthinkability bias could not have been in greater evidence than in the coverage of the U.S. elections last year when mainstream papers such as the New York Times strongly suggested that the odds in favor of Hilary Clinton were close to 100 percent. Among the analyses that were published in the aftermath of the Trump election, was that political experts lack diversity as a group and tend to reinforce their own views. Social media tends to amplify that echo chamber where like-minded people tell one another what they want to hear and do not see the need to engage with the "other." That is deeply damaging for media credibility, for free speech and for democracy itself.

The social media gained popularity in India about the time two major media exposes took place in 2010-2011. One was the Paid News report which exposed the involvement of several newspapers in the news for money racket, particularly during election time. The second was the Radia tapes expose which released tapped phone conversations suggesting that top journalists were brokering deals between politicians and corporate houses. Journalistic credibility was at its nadir. That is when social media offered an alternative platform for people to vent their ire and unshackle themselves from the monopoly of the mainstream media.

While social media must be credited with democratizing free speech like never before, it is by no means a substitute to the mainstream or conventional media. Social media has shown its grave limitations — here news gets blurred with opinion, sources cannot be verified and there is no fine line between citizen and journalist. No one can be held to account. The other difficulty with social media is the absence of plurality of opinion and diversity of information, so essential in a democracy.

The media was famously regarded as the "marketplace of ideas" where we must engage with those whose thoughts we disagree with. The social media can be deeply polarizing and insular because we need to see and hear only those with whom we are ideologically aligned. There is no real contest of ideas because one is preaching to the already converted. This reinforces an Us vs. Them, rather than facilitating an engagement with the "other."

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