Is Nepali media failing to abide by ethical journalistic standards in its quest for clicks and breaking news?Media outlets, both old and new, must abide by fair and ethical reporting, along with verification of information, while reporting the news especially in the time of a pandemic, observers say.
Hours after Nepal reported its first Covid-19 death, a video began to circulate on social media, showing the body of the dead woman being unloaded in front of the electronic crematorium at Pashupati. Reports also began to appear on a number of online media portals, identifying the woman by name, displaying her photograph and her personal details.
The video, produced by the video ‘media’ company On the Record Nepal, and the news portals were almost immediately censured by Nepalis on social media for being insensitive, disrespectful towards the dead and pursuing clicks at the cost of journalistic ethics.
The Post too had run an image of the body being unloaded alongside the news report. The image was removed soon after the article was published.
Ever since the Covid-19 pandemic began, the private Nepali media, both old and new, has been at the forefront of disseminating information to the public. But given how hugely competitive the digital sphere can be, there is often a rush to be the first to break news, which can include new Covid-19 cases or deaths. This mad dash for eyeballs and clicks can result in a failure to adhere to journalistic standards—fair and ethical reporting, and verification and corroboration—say journalists and media analysts.
“When even some reputed newspapers make errors, it calls for us to evaluate our sensitivity towards reporting issues with utmost caution,” said Rajendra Dahal, an editor and director of the Internet Governance Institute, an institution that works to strengthen internet governance at the grassroots across the Asia Pacific. “One way to minimise harm is to ensure a good editorial leadership that keeps an open eye for inaccuracies to avoid mishaps.”
The Federation of Nepali Journalists has issued guidelines for reporting on the coronavirus, asking journalists to refrain from reporting that affects the privacy of individuals and to only report information verified by the government authorities and from experts.
But again, on Wednesday, a number of media outlets, including Setopati, Onlinekhabar and Himal Khabarpatrika, swiftly reported a third Covid-19 death without waiting for official confirmation. The hospital where the patient was admitted subsequently clarified via an official statement that the patient in question was alive and well, leading all three to issue corrections.
While these corrections are to be acknowledged, as many Nepali media houses tend to simply take down the offending news report without clarification, research has shown that corrections are unlikely to catch up to the mistakes and are less likely to be read and shared.
In the age of social media, news spreads faster than ever and newsrooms need to be cognizant of this fact while publishing anything that could spread fear, misinformation or cause harm to an individual or community’s health and dignity, say journalist associations and observers of the media.
“Balance the public’s need for information against potential harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance or undue intrusiveness,” advises the Society of Professional Journalists, an American organisation.
The SPJ also asks that journalists and media houses consider “sources, subjects, colleagues and members of the public as human beings deserving of respect” and thus do ethical journalism that “show(s) compassion for those who may be affected by news coverage”.
Early in the development of the pandemic in Nepal, Republica, an English daily, had speculated that the second Covid-19 patient, a young woman who’d returned from France, might be a “super spreader”, leading to harassment, hate speech and even death threats. The woman, 19-year-old Prasiddhi Shrestha, told the Post last month that she holds the media responsible for a lot of public hate directed towards her due to irresponsible and inaccurate reporting.
In late March, the Press Council, the quasi-governmental regulatory body for the media, had issued a directive asking media outlets to only publish verified facts obtained from reliable authorities and experts on the subject, and also protect the personal privacy of the infected or even of an individual suspected to have been infected, along with their family members.
According to Kishor Shrestha, acting chairperson of the Press Council Nepal, the directive was necessary after misleading information around Covid-19 began to circulate on social media, including a false story about a Spanish tourist who was reported to have contracted Covid-19 in Nepal before dying in his home country.
“After misinformation is spread, even upon removal, it still gets picked by a significant number of people and begins circulating on social media and instant messaging apps, creating chaos,” said Shrestha.
Further complicating matters is the rise of citizen journalism, especially on YouTube. Driven by views, YouTube content creators are often found peddling fake news, spreading misinformation and sensationalising news to gain more viewers.
While most journalists agree that anyone can become a journalist, they also believe that certain journalistic standards need to be adhered to. YouTube content creators are often unaware of the rigour of the journalistic process. They also don’t have editorial oversight, as in newsrooms a sharp editor can often check misinformation before it goes out into the public.
“The ease with which such channels can be started has created confusion about who is a real journalist and who is just running around with a camera asking people questions,” said Shrestha.
But ultimately, it is incumbent on media outlets to ensure that they take the utmost care to make sure that the information they are reporting is reliable, accurate and fair, especially during crises.
“Media outlets are responsible for ensuring their own credibility by making sure that only proper information is disseminated,” said Shiva Gaunle, former president of the Federation of Nepali Journalists and editor of the Center for Investigative Journalism. “Without credibility, news outlets serve no purpose except to mislead the audience.”
But Gaunle also believes that the onus is on the audience to verify the source of their information before sharing it.
“As unverified and misleading information is rampant, responsible readership has to be maintained,” he said. “The audience too should be wary about where they are getting their information.”