Tracing Global Panic Super-Spreaders In India During Covid Waves: BBC Tops The Chart

Tracing Global Panic Super-Spreaders In India During Covid Waves: BBC Tops The ChartBig Media 
Snapshot
  • In Western, English-language media's coverage of India's struggle and fight against Covid-19, hysteria took the place of reportage very often.

Last 13 months have been very challenging for the human race across the world.

Coronavirus, said to be originating from Wuhan, China, has paralysed humanity. 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 in on these miseries to their advantage — especially media houses from the West, which seemed to try extra hard to locate public failures and misery in India.

Our detailed research on the headlines of 550+ articles published on Covid-19 vis-à-vis India in the last 14 months in top American and British publications gives 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 a pandemic, crisis multipliers like panic and biases need to be actively and 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 as well.

Hoarders also take extra advantage of such situations and black-market many essential medical supplies. Yet, with a whopping 76 per cent 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 a per-million mortality lens.

Research Framework: We tracked the coverage of six global publications — BBC, The Economist, The Guardian, Washington Post, New York Times and CNN via web search results, of their Covid pandemic reportage in India over a 14-month period.

This period is easily carved up in two pieces — Before the second surge i.e. March 2020-March 2021 and after the second surge i.e. from April 2021.

The study looked at articles till April 30, 2021. All the headings are curated and marked under these six categories — Fear Inducing, Hyperbolic, Critical, Doubting, Neutral and Praising — and then analysed in detail.

Detailed Analysis

These six global media houses did 552 articles on Covid-19 just related to India from 1 March 2020 to 30 April 2021.

BBC, the state-owned news broadcaster of the UK, led the pack with 274 stories, followed by New York Times with 91 stories and Washington Post with 69 stories.

BBC with almost a 50 per cent share in the published articles on India confirms the colonial hangover with which it continues to comment on India.

Tracing Global Panic Super-Spreaders In India During Covid Waves: BBC Tops The Chart

When we marked these 552 headlines published by these Western publications in last 14 months under Fear Inducing, Hyperbolic, Critical, Doubting, Neutral and Praising, the results were shocking.

Even though India managed the first wave pretty well, got accolades from WHO, is among the countries with a very low mortality per million, is among the few countries which has invested in its own vaccine, only an abysmal 2 per cent of these global headlines were laudatory of India’s efforts, while a whopping 76 per cent of the headlines were Fear Inducing, Hyperbolic, Critical, and Doubting.

With 176 Fear Inducing, Hyperbolic, Critical or Doubting headlines, BBC tops the charts of panic super spreaders among the lot.

These publications are hardly interested in factual reporting and seem to be very keen on narrative building.

That’s why just 22 per cent of the headlines convey neutral reporting. For The Guardian, 96 per cent of their 28 headlines published in 14 months are Panic Spreading or Misleading.

For WaPo and NYT, 88 per cent of their headlines are Panic Spreading or Misleading.

Tracing Global Panic Super-Spreaders In India During Covid Waves: BBC Tops The Chart

When we analysed the monthly rate of these articles, we found that out of the total stories written in the last 14 months, these western publications did almost 40 per cent of the stories in the month of April of 2021.

Around 60 per cent of the BBC headlines before April 2021 were Panic Spreaders or misleading, but in April 2021, BBC framed 82 per cent of the Panic Spreader and misleading headlines.

The other five media houses learnt from BBC to publish almost the same, or in some cases, exceed the article volume in one month (April 2021) compared to the 13-month period of March 2020-March 2021.

WaPo and CNN did more than 50 per cent of their stories on India just in the month of April 2021 in the last 14 months.

Tracing Global Panic Super-Spreaders In India During Covid Waves: BBC Tops The Chart

Patterns of the Panic Spreader and Misleading Headlines

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 casualities per million, India is one of the better performing countries on the world 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 look at some examples:

On 7 September 2020, the headline of BBC read – “Coronavirus: India overtakes Brazil in Covid-19 cases”.

BBC conveniently missed that Brazil’s population is 1/6th of India, but they went ahead to compare apples to oranges to spread panic.

Similarly, on 6 June 2020, the headline of The Guardian read – “Global report: India's Covid-19 case total surpasses Italy's", displaying utmost intellectual dishonesty as Italy's population is 1/23rd that of India.

On 27 April 2021, the headline of Washington Post read – “India tops 300,000 new covid-19 cases for sixth day in a row as more countries pledge support”.

Here, WaPo does not want to use the cases-per-million matrix and wants to take advantage of India’s large population to give a spin to the headline.

On 3 May 2021, New York Times screamed – “Covid-19: With Over 312,000 Cases in 24 Hours, India Sets a Record".

On 28 June 2020, BBC“Coronavirus: How Delhi 'wasted' lockdown to become India's biggest hotspot”.

There was no such study in June to declare Delhi as 'India’s biggest hotspot', but BBC invented this unsubstantiated headline.

On 6 August 2020, BBC wrote: “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 sensationalise the issue by 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 localised negative observation and extrapolated to a pan-India level, to make it sound like a nationwide phenomenon.

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 3 April 2020, BBC wrote – “Coronavirus: India doctors 'spat at and attacked'.

By this heading, BBC has achieved two mischievous goals — Shielding Tablighi Jamat after their uncivilised behaviours with medical staff, and two, making it sound that all over India, corona patients are spitting and attacking doctors.

On 27 April 2021, a New York Times headline read – “This Is a Catastrophe.' In India, Illness Is Everywhere”.

India has 700+ districts and all of them have a different positivity rate and case load. But for NYT, an illness is ‘verywhere’.

c) Using hyperbolic expressions and vocabulary

Many of these Western publications very frequently used hyperbolic adjectives to spreads panic and anxiety even in unaffected people.

On 30 March 2020, a BBC headline read – “Coronavirus: India's pandemic lockdown turns into a human tragedy”. India was one of first countries in the globe to declare stringent lockdowns to contain the coronavirus spread.

On 4 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 across India.

Our analysis confirms that BBC is Panic super-spreader number 1 by its fear-inducing and hyperbolic headlines.

On 2 May 2021, a Washington Post headline read – “Modi’s party loses key state election amid pandemic vote; India sees record deaths”.

Whereas, in reality, the NDA alliance retained the state of Assam, won in Puducherry for the first time ever and increased its vote share significantly in other three states.

Anyone who relied on WaPo for their news consumption, will get a totally skewed picture of the recently concluded state elections.

All these publications frequently used the words like 'Human Tragedy', 'Ravaging', ‘Struggling to Survive’, 'Nightmare', ‘No End in Sight’, ‘Broke Record’, ‘Everywhere’, among many such expressions in their headlines to misrepresent an incident or phenomenon while reporting Covid stories in India.

It’s time for the Indian state and for Indians to investigate, decide and act on the true role of international media houses with their hidden and direct agendas.

  • Shantanu Gupta is the biographer of UP CM Yogi Adityanath. His book is titled, ‘The Monk Who Became Chief Minister’.


‘Uttar Pradesh Vikas Ki Pratiksha Mein’, has been published by Bloomsbury. He tweets at @shantanug_ and his website is www.shantanugupta.in




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