The last 13 months have been very challenging for the human race across the world. Coronavirus said to be originating from Wuhan, China has paralyzed humanity. Effective leaders, scientists and medical practitioners across the globe have constantly shown their grit to try to take us out of this mayhem. At the same time, many attempted to cash these miseries to their advantage. Especially the media houses from the west tried extra hard, in these tough times, to support their long-term cause of bashing India. Our detailed research on the headlines of 550+ articles published on the Covid vis-à-vis India in the last 14 months in the top USA and UK based publications, gives us shocking results. A large majority of these headlines are just fear-inducing and misleading.
It is a widely published and discussed topic that in times of pandemic, crisis’ multipliers like panic & biases need to be actively & responsibly avoided. Leading public health specialist, Dr. Jonathan D Quick in his famous book – ‘The End of Epidemics’ says – “In the face of an epidemic – terror, blame, rumours, conspiracy theories, distrust of authorities, and panic can take hold simultaneously”. Experts have also widely commented that panic, distress and anxiety among the people during this pandemic can take a toll on their mental health and on their oxygen levels also in many cases. Hoarders also take extra advantage of such panic situations and black-market many essential medical supplies. Yet with a whopping 76% of the analysed headlines being fear-inducing, hyperbolic, critical and distrust amplifiers in our detailed headlines research, these leading global media houses chose to shrug off basic journalistic or civic responsibility, for the sake of readership and while hanging on a mythical superiority complex of the west; a complex which this pandemic has further destroyed when one views global Covid mortality numbers through per-million mortality lens.
Research Framework: We tracked the coverage of 6 global publications – BBC, The Economist, The Guardian, Washington Post, New York Times & CNN via web search results, of their Covid pandemic reportage in India over a 14 months period. This period is easily carved up in 2 pieces – Before the second surge i.e. Mar’20-Mar’21 and After the second surge 2 i.e. from Apr’21. The study looked at articles till Apr 30, 2021. All the headings are curated and marked under these 6 categories: Fear Inducing, Hyperbolic, Critical, Doubting, Neutral and Praising and then analyzed in detail.
– These 6 global media houses– BBC, The Economist, The Guardian, Washington Post, New York Times, CNN did a whopping 552 articles on Covid stories just related to India from 1st March 2020 to 30th April 2021. BBC, the state-owned news broadcaster of UK, led the pack with 274 stories, followed by New York times with 91 stories and Washington post with 69 stories. BBC with almost 50% share in the published articles on India confirms the colonial hangover with which it continues to comment on India.
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[Graph 1: Distribution of Covid Stories on India by Global Publications from March’20 to April 21]
– When we marked these 552 headlines published by these western publications in the last 14 months under Fear Inducing, Hyperbolic, Critical, Doubting, Neutral and Praising, results were shocking. Even though India managed the 1st wave pretty well, got accolades from someone like WHO, India is among the countries with very low mortality per million, India is among the few countries which have invested its own vaccine, but only an abysmal 2% of these global headlines were praising India’s Covid effort and a whopping 76% headlines were Fear Inducing, Hyperbolic, Critical, Doubting. With 176 Fear Inducing, Hyperbolic, Critical or Doubting headlines, BBC tops the charts of Panic Super spreaders among in volume of biased headlines. With 96% of its headlines published in 14 months under the Panic Spreading or Mis-leading category, The Guardian tops the chart in the total share of biased headlines. For WaPo and NYT, 88% of their headlines are Panic Spreading or Mis-leading. These publications are hardly interested in factual reporting and seem to be very keen on the narrative building. That’s why Just 22% of the headlines convey neutral reporting.
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[Graph 2: Analysis of Headlines of Covid Stories on India by Global Publications from March’20 to April 21]
– When we analyzed the monthly rate of these articles, we found that out of total stories, written in the last 14 months, these western publications did almost 40% of the stories in the month of April of 2021. Around 60% of the BBC headlines before April 2021 were Panic Spreaders or misleading but in April’21 BBC framed 82% Panic Spreader and misleading headlines. The other 5 media house learnt from BBC to published almost the same, or in some cases exceed, article volume in 1 month (Apr’21) compared to the 13-month period of Mar’20-Mar’21. WaPo and CNN did more than 50% of their stories on India just in the month of April’21 in the last 14 months. When India has braved the 2nd wave of Covid these western publications were busily copyrighting Panic Super-Spreader headlines.
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[Graph 3: Distribution of Covid Stories on India by Global Publications in April’21 and 13 Months from Mar’20]
Patterns of the Panic Spreader and Mis-leading Headlines
These six western publications used various techniques to create fear, panic and anxiety among people through their misleading headlines on the coverage of Covid in India. Let me take you through different patterns we found in these headlines:
a) Using Absolute Numbers to twist data
BBC, Washington Post and New York times repeatedly used absolute numbers of Covid positive cases in India or in some Indian city, to declare it number 1 in the world. They have conveniently missed taking the reference of cases per million of population. Because If one takes cases per million or causalities per million, India is one of the far better-performing countries on the global map. India being the second most populated country in the world, will obviously have large absolute numbers, which came in handy for the crafty headlines of the western publications.
Let’s looks at some examples:
– On 7th September 2020 headline of BBC read – “Coronavirus: India overtakes Brazil in Covid-19 cases”. BBC conveniently missed that Brazil’s population is 1/6th of India and but they went ahead to compare apples to oranges to spread panic. Similarly, 6th June 2020 headline of The Guardian read – “Global report: India’s Covid-19 case total surpasses Italy’s” displayed utmost intellectual dishonesty to compare India with Italy, whose population is 1/23rd of India.
– On 27th April 2021 headline of Washington Posts read – “India tops 300,000 new covid-19 cases for the sixth day in a row as more countries pledge to support”. Here WaPo does not want to use cases per million matrices and want to take advantage of India’s large population to give a spin to the headline
– On 3rd May 2021 headline of New York Times read – “Covid-19: With Over 312,000 Cases in 24 Hours, India Sets a Record”. This headline tried to create a fictitious ‘Record’ out of positive corona cases in India, taking advantage of India’s large population
– ON 28th June, 2020 BBC headline said – “Coronavirus: How Delhi ‘wasted’ lockdown to become India’s biggest hotspot”. There was not such study in June to declare Delhi as India’s biggest hotspot, but BBC invented this unsubstantiated headline.
– ON 6th August, 2020 BBC headline said – “Coronavirus: India becomes third country to pass two million cases”. Without qualifying it with the total population of India in the denominator, BBC tried to sensationalize quoting big absolute numbers from India.
b) Extrapolating a Hyper-Local Observation to Pan India Level
In Many of the headlines these publications took a localized negative observation and extrapolated it to Indian level to make it sound like a pan-India observation. Such misleading headings have the potential to create panic and fear in the people of another region of India, who are totally unconnected to that phenomenon
– On 3rd April 2020 BBC headline read – “Coronavirus: India doctors ‘spat at and attacked’. By this heading BBC has achieved two mischievous goals – Shielding Tablighi Jamat after their un-civil behaviours with medical staff and making it sound that all over India Corona patients are spitting and attacking doctors. Simply vicious headline.
– On 27th April 2021, New York Times headline read – “This Is a Catastrophe.’ In India, Illness Is Everywhere”. India has 700+ districts and all of them has different positivity rate and caseload. But for NYT illness is ‘Everywhere’.
c) Using hyperbolic expressions and vocabulary
Many of these western publications very frequently used hyperbolic adjectives to spreads panic and anxiety even in un-affected people
– On 30th March 2020, BBC headlines read – “Coronavirus: India’s pandemic lockdown turns into a human tragedy”. India was one of the first country’s in the globe to declare stringent lockdowns to contain the Coronavirus spread. Lockdown became a global norm thereafter. But just to discourage India’s move, BBC tried to add generalized hyperbolic expressions like ‘human tragedy’ to create confusion around lockdowns in India.
– On 4th May 2020 another BBC headline read – “Coronavirus: How Covid-19 is ravaging India’s newsrooms”. Based on a few cases in Indian media newsrooms, BBC made it appear that Covid is ‘ravaging’ every newsroom in across India. Our analysis confirms that BBC is Panic Super-spreader number 1 by its fear-inducing and hyperbolic headlines
– On 2nd May, Washington Post misleading headline read – “Modi’s party loses key state election amid pandemic vote; India sees record deaths”. Where in reality Modi’s lead NDA alliance, retained the state of Assam, won in Puducherry for the first time ever and increased their vote share significantly in other three states. Anyone who relied on WaPo for their news consumption, will get it totally skewed picture of recently concluded state elections
The way large global media houses manufacture biases and emphasize & underplay certain themes is well known, exposing their claim of neutral journalism.
This can easily be seen in the way headlines are framed, imagery is deployed and word-selection is played up. All the publications frequently used the words like Human Tragedy, Ravaging, ‘Struggling to Survive’, Nightmare, ‘No End in Sight’, ‘Broke Record’, ‘Every Where’, Shattering and many such expressions in their headlines to mis-represent an incident or phenomenon while reporting Covid stories in India.
It’s time for the Indian state and for Indians to investigate, decide & act on the true role of international media houses with their hidden & direct agendas. We will need to constantly review if they are relevant to and a partner in the journey of a thousands of years old civilization, which is also 1/6th of humanity or are they harmful viruses infecting our well-being by being panic super spreaders.
– Shantanu Gupta, Author & Policy Commentator (Assisted by Samidala Manohar for Data Collection, Student at IIDL)