"Fighting hoaxes and misinformation"
The Covid-19 pandemic was an opportunity to carry out the public service function of journalism.
By Chaitanya Marpakwar
Mustafa Shaikh is a senior television journalist working with India Today. He reports in both English and Hindi on a range of topics that include crime, politics, and disasters. Mustafa has reported widely on the Covid-19 pandemic often being the first one to reach hospitals, cremation grounds, and locations where there was mob lynching and stampede like situations. Known for his quick ability to gather information and flash news breaks, Mustafa has fought several hoaxes and misinformation during the pandemic. Despite the massive challenges that the Covid-19 pandemic posed to journalists, Mustafa believes that it was an opportunity to inform people and carry out the public service function of journalism.
Excerpts from a conversation
I think it was an opportunity. I agree that the Covid-19 pandemic was a massive challenge, but I think it was also an opportunity. The challenge was to ensure personal safety and the safety of your family, but in terms of reporting and journalism, you can say that it came as an opportunity. In television journalism, it is the anchors who dominate the news coverage during normal times. Most space is taken away by debates and political issues. It is very difficult to do any news reporting and do new stories in TV news. But during the pandemic, it was possible to do more news stories. There was a time during the lockdown when newspapers had stopped printing and there was no circulation. So it was the TV news that was doing all the public service by informing the people about what is happening. This went on for months and we were actually the only source of news for people who were in panic and under the fear of the pandemic.
But wasn’t this work challenging?
Yes, it was challenging because people were not finding beds, doctors and medicines were not available. We had to keep our personal safety in mind. We had to also ensure the safety of our parents who are senior citizens. So I had to go out and come back home, take a bath, sanitise myself. This was tough to do on a daily basis, but I had no option. There was a lot of mental pressure. But it gave us the chance to do better journalism and more reportage.
Which is one of your most important stories?
The fact is that there was not much importance given to health infrastructure in the city and the country. The health care apparatus was already creaking and the pandemic put immense pressure on this crumbling infrastructure. In Mumbai, this was true. Relatives were calling us and saying that patients were waiting outside hospitals to get beds for more than 48 hours. There were no beds. We saw patients die in front of us waiting outside hospitals. There were huge queues of patients outside hospitals. We reported all these stories and then the authorities tried to give them beds. This kind of reporting was the most satisfying, and they had an impact and made a difference.
There was a lot of fake news and misinformation. How did you tackle that?
There was a lot of fake news that was going around on WhatsApp. In today’s times, most of my time is spent on verifying stuff that comes on WhatsApp, this has become a part of the job. But the good thing is that I have access to some of the officials who help me verify the information. Then after verification, we slay the hoaxes. We wait for the verification and only then confirm developments. As the lockdown was relaxed, the amount of fake news also spiked. There were patients running away from hospitals, some attempting suicides, patients being molested by health care staff. This was all serious and had to be very carefully filtered and verified. So there were some things that were fake and some things that were true. Many fake alerts created panic.
There were also a lot of communal incidents where there was hate speech involved on social media. There were rumours that led to stampede-like situations too. How did you tackle this on the field?
Compared to regular times, this was much more stressful. The world had stopped, but we had not stopped and for us, things did not change. We still had to run to the spot and report. We had only a few minutes to process tonnes of information and break the news. Migrant labourers had gathered outside Bandra station and there was chaos. We had to reach the spot, we had no option. I spent days together on the field. The world changed, but nothing changed for television journalism. There was a fear of a riot or more chaos, so we had to be very careful. We had to balance things and at the same time, report facts.
Health journalism was not a full-time beat in television journalism? Do you think that it will now become more important in TV news?
Surely. I think health and education are two beats that have gained immense priority now. Now TV is taking health more seriously and I think it will remain that way. Now prime time news is dominated by health issues. All health-related press conferences are live on prime time, which didn’t happen before. Health issues are given a lot more space now. This trend will continue at least till a large majority of the people are vaccinated.
Do you think that some elements were missing from the Covid-19 pandemic?
There was not enough health infrastructure, we all know that. But despite that, the healthcare and the frontline workers were risking their lives and trying to help the patients. I think some more positive stories could have been used. This would have motivated the doctors and health care workers. There were many positive stories, but I think early on in the pandemic, some more positive stories were needed. I personally tried to do some stories that would motivate the doctors and health care workers so that they felt nice and their hard work was appreciated. We were all doing trial and error, the world over. So things were changing, people laid down their lives to save the lives of other people.
Did you gain any new skills? How did your own journalism change?
Yes, there were quite a few changes. One important change was that we stopped doing face-to-face interviews. We latched on to video calling and did virtual interviews. This way we could talk to people who were not in the city or even in the country for that matter. Journalism has become much more tech-driven now and this will be a long-term change in journalism. We started video-conferencing application-based interviews and now we do it very often. This is a new skill that I acquired and it was a learning experience. By this, we could also interview Covid-19 positive patients and their relatives without meeting them. I think these tech features will become part of mainstream journalism. They are here to stay. A lot of things will change further. Interviews on video conferencing applications will become the new normal. Tech interventions will remain.