Everyone is a doctor and an undercover journalist too.

news Social media Tuesday, September 27, 2016 - 18:30

Ask anyone with a smartphone in Tamil Nadu and they’ll tell you what they ‘know’ about Chief Minister Jayalalithaa’s health.  You’re probably living under a rock, if you haven’t received an SMS or a WhatsApp/Facebook message of the 68-year-old leader’s health report.

Since her admission late on Thursday night at a private hospital in Chennai, forwards of Amma’s ‘progress report’ has been passed on from person to person, or in the case of WhatsApp, from group to group.  These social media health bulletins allegedly reveal everything from the CM’s medical diagnosis, her vital parameters to the date of her discharge. With medical terminology thrown in, the authenticity of these messages are never doubted, nor their source of origin verified.  

The steady stream of ‘updates’ has not been limited to Jayalalithaa’s health. On Monday, hours after AIADMK released its list of candidates for the local body elections due next month, there was wild speculation from both within the party and from political rivals, over whether the party supremo had, in fact, cleared the names.  

Many mischief makers also attempted to join the dots between the Chief Minister’s admission in hospital and the verdict in the Disproportionate Assets case.  One message reportedly states that the Supreme Court judgement on the DA case is not expected to come out soon as the judge is set to retire. A simple fact-check reveals that Judges PC Ghose and Amitava Roy, who are hearing the case, will serve in the apex court until May 2017 and March 2018 respectively.   

But the dangers of rumour mongering over Jayalalithaa’s health are real, spreading fear and panic across the state. This was evidenced on Monday when several IT companies in Chennai reportedly told their employees to return home early, fearing a law and order problem.  

Rise of WhatsApp journalism

While it’s easy to point fingers at a layman for believing such forwards, the real threat is when journalists and media organisations fall prey to unsubstantiated reports.  Rumours of Jayalalithaa being flown abroad for treatment was featured as ‘Breaking News’ on a national news channel after a message was circulated amongst Delhi journalists, but was quickly retracted after officials in the Tamil Nadu government swung into action.   

And although the channel was hardly the first media organisation to erroneously carry such rumours as factual news reports, the rise of “WhatsApp journalism” is both real and alarming.  

“At an informal level, sharing of information is useful,” says RK Radhakrishnan, Associate Editor of Frontline, but notes that as far as journalistic ethics are concerned, WhatsApp journalism is wrong.

Another senior journalist in Chennai laments that the basic rule of journalism, verifying news from at least two sources, has been thrown out since the advent of WhatsApp. “Everyone is a reporter these days. There are journalists who are part of over 100 news groups and this is bringing down the value of journalism,” he observes.

In the case of Jayalalithaa’s hospitalisation, Radhakrishnan believes that it is essentially “desperate journalism”. With the hospital less than forthcoming when it comes to the VVIP patient, journalists are forced to source information beyond the two-line health bulletin. He, however, points out that some of the hospital sources that journalists cite, very often have no information on the Chief Minister’s health. In such a scenario, where information is tightly guarded, journalists, Radhkrishnan suggests, should make an informed choice on whether to forward such messages to friends and peers or whether to keep it to himself/herself.

Doctor-patient confidentiality?

Many argue that Jayalalithaa’s health should remain confidential and her doctors are bound by the Hippocratic oath. But journalists like Radhakrishnan argue that the public has the right to know about the Chief Minister, a democratically elected leader’s health. And while security may be a concern for government officials, rumour mongering can very often spiral out of control.

Following wild speculation over Jayalalithaa’s health during the weekend, doctors together with the Health Minister and the Health Secretary called for a press meet on Sunday to put an end to the rumours. But instead of addressing questions about the Chief Minister’s hospitalisation, the press meet was off-limits to reporters. Camerapersons were allowed entry to record the prepared statement of the hospital.

To kill all rumours surrounding the CM’s health, Radhakrishnan says, “The hospital has no escape but to give people the truth.”