Verification is a vital function of the news media, especially when the reader-viewer-surfer is exposed to relentless propaganda via electronic and social media.
India’s air strike on Pakistan on February 26 posed a test of the newspapers and television against the backdrop of opposing claims made by the two countries.
As if to prove the adage that truth is the first casualty of war, news organisations on both sides come up short as the clouds of bloody conflict thicken over the subcontinent.
India did not put a formal stamp on the casualty toll in the early-morning air strike on Balakot. In his official briefing, the foreign secretary said:
“In this operation, a very large number of JeM terrorists, trainers, senior commanders and groups of jihadis who were being trained for fidayeen action were eliminated.”
Spot news stories by Reuters and BBC from the site of the attack countered this almost immediately.
Reuters quoted villagers as saying only one person was wounded and they knew of no fatalities. But figures ranging from 300 to 600 have done the rounds.
While error and exaggeration is to be expected in the heat of the reporting moment, today’s newspapers do not quite provide the accurate picture despite having several hours to crosscheck the claims.
In fact, the large-circulation language newspapers in Hindi (Dainik Jagran, Dainik Bhaskar, Amar Ujala), Telugu (Eenadu), Tamil (Dina Malar), Kannada (Vijaya Vani), Gujarati (Gujarat Samachar) unquestioningly end up glorifying the unattributed claim of 300-350.
The English newspapers are no better, both The Times of India and Hindustan Times blithely using the 300 number.
The Indian Express goes with the Foreign Secretary’s amorphous “very large number” in its front page strapline, as do The Telegraph and Deccan Herald in their body copy.
The Hindu reports: “Senior officials citing intelligence inputs of the Jaish-e-Mohammed facility was particularly crowded with 200-325 militants”.
The most sober coverage of the toll comes from the Kashmiri dailies, Kashmir Reader and Rising Kashmir, neither of which have the number.
The Pakistani papers go the opposite way.
In 2013, the current external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj said India would bring back 10 Pakistani heads for an Indian beheaded in Pakistan.
In #Pulwama, 49 paramilitary force personnel perished in the suicide attack. That ratio of 1:10 seems to have found its way into textbooks of WhatsApp University on the toll in the February 26 air strikes.