[Op-ed] April Fools, All Year Round? A Call for Fact-Checking Our Media & Politics

Text of my op-ed article published in Weekend Express newspaper on 7 April 2017.

April Fools All Year Round? Op-ed by Nalaka Gunawardene, Weekend Express, 7 April 2017

April Fools, All Year Round?

By Nalaka Gunawardene

April 1 is observed in many countries as a day for fooling people with practical jokes and harmless fabrications. This aspect of popular culture can be traced back to the times of ancient Greece.

There is now a new twist to this tradition. Every day is beginning to feel like April Fools’ Day in the age of Internet pranks, clever satire and fake news!

Sadly, many among us who apply some measure of skepticism on April 1 are not as vigilant for the rest of the year.

Ah, how I miss the time when intentional misleading was largely confined to just one day. I’m old enough to remember how some Lankan newspapers used to carry elaborate – and seemingly plausible – stories on their front pages on April Fools’ day. The now defunct Sun and Weekend excelled in that delightful art of the tall tale. Of course, they owned up the following day, poking fun at readers who were fooled.

During the past two decades, our media landscape has become a great deal more diverse. Today we have 24/7 SMS news services, all-news TV channels, numerous websites and, of course, millions using social media to spread information (or misinformation) instantaneously.

But does more necessarily mean better? That is a highly debatable question. We seem to have too much media, but not enough journalism! At least journalism of the classical kind where facts are sacred and comment is free (yet informed).

That kind of journalism still exists, but along with so much else. Today’s global cacophony has democratized the media (which is to be celebrated). At the same time, it spawned veritable cottage industries of fake news, conspiracy theories and gossip peddlers.

Image source – American Journalism Review, 21 April 2015

Fact checking

What is to be done? The long term solution is to raise media literacy skills in everyone, so that people consume media and social media with due diligence.

That takes time and effort. Since misinformation is polluting the public mind and even undermining democratic processes, we must also look for other, faster solutions.

One such coping strategy is fact checking. It literally means verifying information – before or after publication – in the media.

In a growing number of countries, mainstream media outlets practise fact checking as an integral part of their commitment to professionalism. They seek to balance accuracy with speed, which has been made more challenging by the never-ending news cycle.

In other cases, independent researchers or civil society groups are keeping track of news media content after publication. In the United States, where the practice is well developed, several groups are devoted to such post-hoc fact checking. These include FactCheck, PolitiFact, and NewsTrust’s Truth Squad. They fact check the media as well as statements by politicians and other public figures.

In 2015, fact checking organisations formed a world network and this year, they observed the inaugural International Fact Checking Day.

Not coincidentally, the chosen date was April 2. (See details at: http://factcheckingday.com)

The initiative is a collaboration by fact checkers and journalism organisations from around the world, “with a goal to enlist the public in the fight against misinformation in all its forms.”

“International Fact Checking Day is not a single event but a rallying cry for more facts — and fact checking — in politics, journalism and everyday life,” says Alexios Mantzarlis, director of the International Fact-Checking Network at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in the US.

Oops!

Pinocchios

One visual icon for the Fact-Checking Day is Pinocchio, the fictional puppet character whose nose grew long each time he uttered a lie.

We in Sri Lanka urgently need a professional, non-partisan fact checking service to save us from the alarming proliferation of Pinocchios in public life. Not just our politicians, but also many academics and activists who peddle outdated statistics, outlandish claims or outright conspiracy theories.

Take, for example, the recent claim by a retired professor of political science that 94 Members of Parliament had not even passed the GCE Ordinary Level exam. Apparently no one asked for his source at the press conference (maybe because it fed a preconceived notion). Later, when a (rare?) skeptical journalist checked with him, he said he’d “read it in a newspaper some time ago” — and couldn’t name the publication.

A simple Google search shows that an MP (Buddhika Pathirana) had cited this exact number in September 2014 – about the last Parliament!

Given the state of our media, which often takes down dictation rather than asks hard questions, fact checking is best done by a research group outside the media industry.

A useful model could be South Asia Check, an independent, non-partisan initiative by Panos South Asia anchored in Kathmandu. It “aims to promote accuracy and accountability in public debate” by examining statements and claims made by public figures in Nepal and occasionally, across South Asia (http://southasiacheck.org).

See also: Getting it Right: Fact-Checking in the Digital Age: American Journalism Review, 21 April 2015

South Asia Check – home page captured on 10 April 2017

Nalaka Gunawardene is a science writer and independent media researcher. He is active on Twitter as @NalakaG

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Celebrating Kalpana Sharma, a super-star of good journalism

My friend Kalpana Sharma just stepped down after serving on the Panos South Asia board for over a decade. The Executive Director A S Panneerselvan asked me to write a personalised piece felicitating her. Part of this was read at the annual meeting of the Board held in Dhaka last weekend. Here’s the full essay — a couple of mutual friends who read it say it isn’t too eulogistic! Now you can decide for yourself…

* * * * *

The Curious Ms Sharma of Mumbai

I knew Kalpana Sharma from her by-line long before I met her in person. Now, more than a dozen years after we became friends, she remains an inspiration and a role model.

Kalpana Sharma

Kalpana has been a path-finder and trail-blazer in journalism that cares. She has set the gold standard in investigating and critiquing development in the Indian media. Today, she continues her nearly four decades of association with the Indian media as a respected columnist, journalist and writer. Her stock in trade is a mix of curiosity, sense of social justice, wanderlust and a deep passion for people and issues. She is living proof that quality journalism can be pursued even in these turbulent and uncertain times for the mainstream, corporatised media.

Kalpana has been covering the ‘other India’ that is largely ignored by the Indian media. Its denizens are some 456 million people living under the global poverty line of $1.25 per day — a third of the world’s poor. (If they declared independence, they would immediately become the world’s third most populous nation.) Kalpana’s reporting from the ‘Ground Zero’ of many disasters and conflict zones has highlighted the multiple deprivations of these people living on the margins of survival.

For many such communities, a headline-creating event is just the latest episode in their prolonged and silent suffering. The media pack that descends on them after a sudden development can’t seem very different from the assorted politicians who turn up periodically during election campaigns. For too long, the grassroots have been treated merely as a grazing ground for stories or votes.

Kalpana doesn’t hesitate to be part of the media pack when duty calls, but once in the field, she sees connections often missed by other journalists looking for a quick sound byte or dramatic image. Unlike some news hounds, she doesn’t exploit the misery of affected people (“Hands up who’s poor, speaks English – and looks good on TV!”). And she returns to the same locations months or years later to follow up.

For all these reasons, Kalpana was our first choice to write the last chapter in a regional book on disasters and media that I co-edited with Indian journalist Frederick Noronha in 2007. Her 2,000-word reflective essay should be required reading for any journalist covering disasters and social disparity in South Asia.

Here is a passage that sums up her views on the subject: “Much of disaster reporting sounds and reads the same because the reporters only see what is in front of them, not what lies behind the mounds of rubble, figuratively speaking. What was this region before it became this disaster area? How were social relations between different groups? What was its history? What were its relations with the state government? Was it neglected or was it favoured? How important was it to the politics of the state?”

Kalpana has been asking such probing questions all her professional life. And it’s not just in the rural hinterland of India that Kalpana has travelled extensively listening and talking to people from all walks of life. Living in the world’s second most populous city Mumbai, she has been equally concerned with its burning issues of urban poverty, gender disparity, environmental mismanagement and governance.

Kalpana once wrote an insightful book about the Dharavi slum in Mumbai, looking at both its social inequalities and the people’s remarkable resilience. Titled Rediscovering Dharavi: Stories from Asia’s largest slum (Penguin, 2000), it was called ‘a model of sane, human, down-to-earth writing’. All this was years before the Oscar-winning movie Slumdog Millionaire (2008) popularised the location through a dramatic tale.

In her quest for untold human stories, Kalpana has taken a particular interest in the plight of poor women. She has written many authentic and moving stories about women who struggle on the margins of the margin. A recurrent theme in her writing is how invisible ‘superwomen’ hold the social fabric together in much of India. Many communities and production systems –ranging from domestic work and child care to waste disposal and farming – would simply grind to a halt if these unseen and unsung women took even a single day off. In reality, of course, they just can’t afford such luxuries.

Kalpana’s column The Other Half, which started in The Indian Express and now appears in The Hindu, is a regular eye-opener. She takes a current topic – from politics, culture, sport or environment — and explores its gender dimensions. She does so by carefully blending facts, personal insights and opinion that makes her writing very different to the rhetorical shrill of gender activists.

Make no mistake: Kalpana is an activist in her own right, and one of the finest in modern India. It’s just that her approach is more subtle, rational and measured – and in the long run, wholly more effective. Long ago, she found how to balance public interest journalism with social activism. This is one more reason why I look up to her.

Partners in crime: Nalaka and Kalpana speaking at the Education for Sustainable Future conference in Ahmedabad, India, January 2005.

In her writing, television appearances and public speaking, Kalpana stays well within the boundaries of good, old-fashioned journalism based on its A, B and C: accuracy, balance and credibility. In my view, she enriches the mix by adding a ‘D’ and ‘E’: depth and empathy. Without these qualities, mere reporting is sterile and dispassionate.

And once we get to know her, we also discover the ‘F’ in Kalpana Sharma: she is a fun-loving, cheerful woman who doesn’t take herself too seriously. We can count on her to be adventurous, enthusiastic and endlessly curious.

Cultivating these attributes would certainly enrich any journalist. I can’t agree more when Kalpana says (in her chapter to a recent book on environmental journalism in South Asia): “Journalists are good or bad, professional or unprofessional. I am not sure if other labels, such as ‘environmental’ or ‘developmental’, ought to be tagged on to journalists.”

I hope Kalpana has no retirement plans. She has earned a break after a dozen years on the Board of Panos South Asia. But we want her to remain a guiding star – a bundle of energy that shines a light into the Darkness, and helps make sense of the tumult and frenzy that surrounds us.

Ahead of tsunami, journalist foresaw coastal disaster in Sri Lanka: “A Catastrophe Waiting to Happen”

Dilrukshi Handunnetti in Deep Divide film

Contrary to a popular belief, journalists don’t enjoy being able to say ‘I told you so!’. They much rather prefer if their investigative or analytical work in the public interest are heeded in time.

A few months before the Indian Ocean tsunami of December 2004, my friend and journalist Dilrukshi Handunnetti wrote an investigative story on how coastal zone management laws and regulations were openly flouted by developers. She cautioned that it was a ‘disaster waiting to happen’

She had no idea how forcefully her point will be driven home before that year ended.

“Little did anyone realise the price coastal communities would have to pay for the greed of a few dozen developers,” she said after the tsunami, interviewed for Deep Divide, a South Asian documentary on environmental justice that TVE Asia Pacific produced in 2005.

Watch Deep Divide – story from Sri Lanka:

Here’s the blurb I wrote at the time to promote the story:

Sri Lanka’s economic activities are concentrated in coastal areas: 80 per cent of the tourist related activities are found there, along with one third of the population. Seeking to accelerate economic growth, the Sri Lankan government took measures to develop the island’s coastal regions. Shrimp and prawn farming was encouraged, while many incentives were provided for developing tourist resorts along the island’s scenic beaches.

As the shrimp exports grew and tourist arrivals increased, there was a ‘cost’ that only local residents and a few environmentalists cared about: mangrove forests were cleared, coral reefs were blasted, and the coastal environment was irreversibly changed.

Shrimp farming damaged mangroves, aggravated tsunami impactCoastal zone management regulations and guidelines were openly flouted by developers. Local communities were the last to benefit from this development boom — they watched silently as their fish catch dwindled and their coastal environment was pillaged. But little did anyone realise the price coastal communities would have to pay for the greed of a few dozen developers.

When the tsunami struck, there were very few natural barriers to minimise its impact. More than 40,000 people died or went missing, while hundreds of thousands lost their homes and livelihoods. It was the biggest single disaster in the island’s history.

Dilrukshi reflects: “Post-tsunami, people realised that the mangroves have protected these little, you know, landmass. And where you find a little bit of protected mangroves, you also find the landmass protected.”

She adds: “I think we have committed lot of excesses and we have been made to answer for those sins. Hereafter, we cannot afford to not do it right.”

Filmed on location in India, Nepal and Sri Lanka, Deep Divide explores the reality of environmental justice in South Asia — home to 500 million people living in absolute poverty, or 40 per cent of the world’s total poor. Everywhere, it finds environmental injustice. This investigative film builds on the work by three local journalists, who act as our guides to understanding the complexities and nuances of development amidst poverty and social disparities.

Environment For All book coverThe origins of Deep Divide go back to 2002. Panos South Asia, a regionally operating non-profit organization analyzing development issues, awarded media fellowships to selected journalists from five South Asian countries to explore specific cases of environmental injustice in their countries. They were to investigate issues as varied as land degradation, food and water insecurity, rising pollution, and mismanaged development.

Their findings were initially published in the local media – in the newspapers or magazines they worked for. In 2004, Panos South Asia compiled the articles in a book titled Environment for All. Three stories from this book were adapted into the documentary, directed by Indian film maker Moji Riba.

No full-stops (periods) in good journalism, only commas…

A S Panneerselvan

In any meeting, we can count on Indian journalist A S Panneerselvan to liven up the discussion. He didn’t let us down when a two dozen South Asians came together last weekend in New Delhi at a Symposium on Science, Environment and Media: Discussing Experiences in South Asia.

“There are no full-stops in good journalism, only commas,” he declared. He was referring to two of the most commonly used punctuation marks in modern writing.

This metaphor neatly sums up the nature of journalism, whose coverage of public affairs and society is often on-going, unfinished and open-ended. This prompted Phil Graham, the former publisher of the Washington Post, to describe journalism as the “first rough draft of history”. The reason is that journalists, in the performance of their duty often record important events, producing hurried written reports (in text, sound or pictures) often generated on short deadlines.

Panneer, who likes to call himself ‘a failed physicist and a failed journalist’, added that the intrinsic value of a journalist as one who tries to bring back the idea of commons — resources that are collectively owned, which can range from physical goods to artistic or creative products.

Panneer was speaking to the journalists, broadcasters, academics and activists brought together by Panos South Asia, IIT Delhi, and Centre for Studies in Science Policy, Jawaharlal Nehru University, for the two-day symposium on 15 – 16 November 2009.

I always welcome occasions when his and my paths cross as we move in overlapping South Asian circles. Listening to him this time around, I recalled his clear, emphatic words on a previous occasion, at an Asian regional brainstorming on ‘Communicating Disasters: Building on the tsunami experience and responding to future challenges’ that I convened in December 2006 in Bangkok, Thailand.

He said the media is plural term, not a singular one. This implies that the media are not a monolith. Some are excellent; many are mediocre; some are downright bad. Some in the media are also indifferent to some issues but may be outstanding in addressing other issues.

He added that media is also very much a contested and contentious space where arguments rage on. Not everything is moderate, balanced or ‘evidence-based’.

Panneer’s day job is as the executive director of Panos South Asia. He was formerly the managing editor of Sun TV and bureau chief for Outlook magazine in India. Having been with the mainstream media for 20 years, he is now moving in that interesting overlap between media and development sectors. This gives him both insight and perspective.

Contributing a chapter to Communicating Disasters: An Asia Pacific Resource Book in 2007, Panneer wrote: “Development agencies rarely bring journalists into their universe at a stage which can be called ‘work-in-progress’. They usually just come to the media with a finished product. There is hardly any joint exploration. When presented with a finished product, there is just one alternative for a reporter — that is, to review the product that is already done.

“Imagine a scenario where journalists are brought into the process right from the word go. There would have been a series of stories, and when the final report of the development agencies is realised, that may well serve as the winding-up story tracking the entire trajectory.

“A journalist is expected to report and not just reproduce. Development agencies like their versions to be reproduced to a large extent. This becomes an assault on the journalists’ work-pride. He or she would like to do a field report, taking a cue or two from the work of the development agency. But, to merely reproduce a report is seen only as providing a free plug, an unpaid advertisement, and doing a stenographer’s job.”

Read his full chapter online: Engaging the Media: A Rough Guide by A S Panneerselvan