There is slight improvement between 2012-14 and March 2016. It took two years for the media to catch on to a NASA hoax then, and around two days this time. But the point is, that they fell for it, hook, line and sinker.
For the last two days, several of the national media have been gushing about an 18-year-old Sataparna Mukherjee from West Bengal who claimed she was offered a scholarship by NASA which would pay for her education up to a doctorate at Oxford University. The reason? They were impressed with her ‘black hole theory’.
A google search shows that Mumbai Mirror had carried the story on February 28 while several other news organizations published reports on March 2.
However, the last time someone made claims about getting attention from NASA, the hoax went on for two years, all of it based on the unverified claims of a young man.
In October 2014, Deccan Chronicle reported that Arun PV, then 27 years old, had been stringing the media along for two years, claiming that he had worked at NASA.
The News Minute had carried a detailed report on how this started. In 2012, the Malayalam media began to report that a young man from Manimala, Kerala had been recruited by NASA that also allowed him to study as a doctoral student under a famous scientist named Barbara Liskov.
Several national media picked up the story and reported the claims, along with things like he refused “lucrative job offers from three MNCs did not lure Arun, as the advice of his teachers was ringing in his mind, to scale new heights in research”.
Things went to such an extent, that he was even felicitated for his “achievements” by former deputy prime minister LK Advani in November 2012.
In September 2014, there were reports that NASA had relaxed its rules on compulsory American citizenship for hiring scientists in order to accommodate him.
There was more: Prime Minister Narendra Modi had had a closed door meeting with him for 30 minutes. Even this did not elicit any skepticism from the media. Eventually, he got a job as a lecturer at the Royal University of Bhutan by showing these newspaper clippings.
After the Deccan Chronicle blew the lid on the hoax, most of the media reported that Arun had been lying all along, with one crucial detail missing: their own gullibility and the inadequate checks and balances that allowed the tall tales to circulate for so long.
With Sataparna’s case however, there were at least two media houses which decided to verify the woman’s claims. While The Wire dissected the claims of ‘blackhole theory’ and found it scientifically implausible, Huffpost India cross-questioned her claims and found her answers bizarre. The report ended with the line: “We only hope that she is not a victim of an elaborate internet fraud herself.”
The mainstream national media still had not learned from the past.
Today, the Indian media are under tremendous pressure to generate revenues, but in order to be able to do that, they need viewers / readers. More effort needs to be put into verifying claims made by people as information floats around the internet in crazy viral cycles.
If we do not learn to be more vigilant, we run the risk of being fooled over and over again, and of further eroding our credibility in the eyes of the public.