Last Saturday, we had readers discuss various aspects of news coverage, editorial choices and visual elements at The Hindu ’s virtual Open House . One of the suggestions was to reimagine the newspaper for the next generation of readers. There were intense discussions about how to provide credible information and in-depth analysis for a small device such as a mobile phone.
As a news ombudsman, I have one non-negotiable condition. Reaching out to newer generations is a logical necessity. According to the online reference section of Britannica, India’s population is young: “Its birth and death rates are both near the global average. More than half the population is under age 30 and less than one-fourth is age 45 or older.” Many newsrooms, The Hindu included, keep debating on what should be the right wordage and mix of visuals and words for various devices. In my view, these essential elements seem to be external factors. The core internal and intrinsic requirement for a news organisation is its ability to foster humanity.
Rise in online hate speech
The spread of social media has contributed to a substantial rise in hate speech-related violence. The Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) has documented the spike in violence that is directly attributed to online hate speech. It says users’ experiences online were originally designed to maximise their engagement. However, with an increase in algorithm-mediated customisation, there is promotion of extreme content. An investigation in The Wall Street Journal , “ How YouTube Drives People to the Internet’s Darkest Corners ”, was on how the site often recommends divisive or misleading material. A report in CFR recorded that in many ways, the debates in courts, legislatures, and among the public about how to reconcile the competing values of free expression and non-discrimination have been around for a century or longer.
It is this context that we need credible media outlets that can halt the spread of hate, vitriol and misogyny and once again work towards an inclusive public sphere. Though no one has quantified the cost of hate that is generated by social media, we are able to sense its corrosive effect on social harmony. A credible news media has two major functions: bearing witness and making sense. The growth of toxicity on social media has delegitimised the act of bearing witness. The recording of pain, the poignancy of loss, and the space for democratic aspirations are filtered through a narrow partisan lens.
The photojournalist who bore witness
Nothing illustrates this inhuman delegitimisation of bearing witness than the racist campaign on social media against photojournalist Danish Siddiqui who was killed while doing his job of documenting the newly emerging politico-military situation in Afghanistan. Siddiqui, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Indian photojournalist , was working for Reuters. According to the news agency, he was embedded with a convoy of Afghan forces that was ambushed by Taliban militants near a key border post with Pakistan. In 2018, he won the Pulitzer Prize in feature photography. He won it alongside colleague Adnan Abidi and five others for their work documenting the violence faced by Myanmar’s minority, the Rohingya. Much has been written about the power of his images of the mass funerals held at the peak of India’s devastating second wave of COVID-19. Empathy was central to his documentation process. “While I enjoy covering news stories — from business to politics to sports — what I enjoy most is capturing the human face of a breaking story,” Siddiqui had told Reuters.
His untimely death also brought out the pitfalls of the amplification of partisan politics on social media. There were hate posts about Siddiqui; some celebrated his death. The Editor’s Guild statement explained the significance of a photojournalist bearing witness to an event. After listing out some of the key assignments of Siddiqui — the 2019 Easter blasts in Sri Lanka, the riots in north-east Delhi in 2020, and the devastating human tragedy caused by the pandemic, the Editor’s Guild observed: “His work was therefore a living testament to the axiom of photojournalism, ‘if your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough’.” Hence, in our quest to reinvent journalism for the new age, we need to ensure that humanity remains the fulcrum of any public discourse.