So who do we trust for authentic news?

24 Mar,2020


By Ranjona Banerji


Where does one go to for accurate news in these times of Covid-19? In spite of all warnings and recommendations by the authorities, fake news about the virus spreads unabated. People, no matter their age or education, have no qualms it seems about forwarding unsubstantiated rubbish via Whatsapp and whatever else they use.

Over the past two months, we have all received “information” about garlic, Vitamin C saving us, various homoeopathic and ayurvedic remedies (some from Government of India), and then of course the huge cow dung and cow urine cure, basically from BJP ministers, members and their affiliated associations.

The problem is that not all of this rubbish is via Whatsapp. How does one combat the cow dung, cow urine stuff when ministers advocate its uses on TV? Or when a Central junior health ministers announces that standing in sunshine for 15 minutes will kill the virus? Or when another Central minister sings a song to plead with the virus to go? Or Wion TV runs a story that wildlife has returned to cities as humans go into quarantine, soon debunked as fake?

And then there are legitimate news channels. What business did NDTV have interviewing “spiritual guru” Jaggi Vasudev about Covid-19? Is he an expert of any sort on medical matters? Why was Sri Sri Ravi Shankar on Times Now? It’s one thing trying to control bored senior citizens playing “Me first” on Whatsapp. Why should these news channels display this level of irresponsibility?

As we saw with the debacle over Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s borrowed idea of clapping and banging pots and pans on March 22, it is India’s most celebrated commentators who are the most irresponsible and least worthy of being called journalists. It’s time to get back to those days when everyone hated us. Several journalists called the clapping diktat a “mantra”, a “masterstroke” and their usual breathless accolades whenever the Prime Minister opens his mouth.

This is what happened as a result:

At least Twitter has woken up and started taking down the dangerous misinformation being spread, largely by rightwing handles, about astrology and whatever saving us from Covid-19. Many of these came up after Modi’s speech, with superstars like Rajinkanth and Mohanlal releasing videos on how claps and vibrations would kill the virus. They were taken down by Twitter. Superstar Amitabh Bachchan had to delete a similar tweet after social media outrage.

If this is the level of irresponsibility amongst India’s celebrities, perhaps we cannot blame the beleaguered and misinformed common person.

Luckily, health reporters across India, most of them in print and news sites, have done a tremendous job. They have highlighted inaccuracies in government claims, they have brought the problems faced by doctors to the forefront, they have questioned lack of testing and equipment. Sadly, these stories do not get widely shared on Whatsapp because 1. There is no hail the dictator element in them and 2. There is no hocus pocus element either.

The CPJ released this advisory for journalists covering Covid-19 in February. It still contains some vitals points:

Incidentally, still no press conference by Modi. Although he did have some “videoconference” with media heads. Whatever that means.

Stay safe. Believe no information until you have checked the source.


Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist and commentator. She is also Consulting Editor, MxMIndia. Her views here are personal

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