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No, there's no flood of illegal Indians or tanker fires in Dubai

Vicky Kapur (From the Executive Editor's Desk)
Filed on January 19, 2020 | Last updated on January 19, 2020 at 06.00 am
dubai, illegal indians, tanker fires, flood

(Alamy)

I broach the subject and give it context to highlight a newswire's recent handling of two 'news reports' on Dubai.

Yes, Dubai roads got flooded last week thanks to some record rainfall but tabloid journalism would have you believe that there were missile-hit oil tankers on fire near a Dubai beach or that waves of trick visas are making a flood of Indian migrants wash ashore, fooled into working for free by shady employers.

Students in journalism schools are given a valuable and extremely significant lesson quite early on in their programmes: do not editorialise when reporting. It's as simple as that. For the uninitiated, to editorialise, according to the Cambridge Dictionary, is 'to express a personal opinion, especially when you should be giving a report of the facts only'.

Objective reporting is fact-based journalism and a news report should leave no room for editorialising content or context. For that, there are columns (like this one) and opinion pieces where the reader is mindful that the author is offering her/his opinion about a subject - and that opinion is subjective.

Mixing the two - a fact-based report with subjective opinion - is like mixing tea and coffee. It leaves a bad taste in one's mouth. Let's take a not-so-recent yet popular example of how senior journalist Elise Labott, then the CNN's global affairs correspondent, editorialised a tweet. On November 19, 2015, the United States House of Representatives passed a bill that would suspend the programme that allowed Syrian and Iraqi refugees to skirt a stringent security requirement to enter the US. Labott tweeted the headline of the story - "House passes bill that could limit Syrian refugees," along with a link of the story.

But, without any distinction, she added a sentence - "Statue of Liberty bows head in anguish"- to the headline in her tweet, which editorialised the factual headline. Labott was handed a two-week suspension for her indiscretion which she accepted after apologising for the gaffe (not the opinion). The point is that journalists - whether reporters or subs or editors - must do all they can to present unblemished facts - even if they do not agree with those facts.

In dissecting and discussing the matter and its circumstances, while most journalists said they shared her opinion, the ones with publishers of pedigree also publicly agreed with the CNN's call. "Evenhandedness, mind you, isn't just a matter of journalistic principle for CNN. It's a business imperative," wrote Erik Wemple, a media critic at the Washington Post. "[w]hen you set aside the understandably passionate debate over the refugees, it's not even a very close call. Labott clearly broke an agreement she had with her employer," wrote Jesse Singal in New York Magazine, where he was a staffer at the time.

I broach the subject and give it context to highlight a newswire's recent handling of two 'news reports' on Dubai. While reporting on a yacht fire near Dubai's Burj Al Arab hotel, the newswire in question added the US-Iran spat as context, suggesting a terror/conflict angle to what the same news report had earlier mentioned was a fire caused by a malfunctioning engine on a yacht under maintenance. Once those facts are established (as clearly shared by the emirate's civil defence officials), there remains no room for editorialising it by suggesting that "it could be coming from an oil tanker or a passenger ship" or that "tensions run high between Iran and the United States" or that the "US administration last year blamed Iran for explosions that damaged several oil tankers off the UAE coast."

Another article - same newswire, a couple of days before the yacht fire incident - seems to give the impression that a huge and growing number of Indians are being illegally employed by unscrupulous UAE employers through a new visa loophole. 'Tourist visa scam traps Indian migrants in abusive jobs in UAE,' screamed the tabloid-ish headline even as the news article's third sentence maintains that reporter had no clue of the magnitude of the so-called scam. "The scale of the problem is unknown as visit visas do not appear in Indian or UAE migration or employment records," said the report.

Leaving the 'estimates' aside, the only quotable data in the article - that the UAE is home to three million Indian migrants and that the official complaints from all Indian overseas workers (not just in the UAE) have tripled to 600 in the past three years - do not really have a direct cause-and-effect connection. Besides, the increase in formal complaints may have been a result of the fact that the Indian foreign ministry has really been active on social media in recent years, encouraging distressed workers to reach out.

Anyway, the point is that neither is Dubai flooded with illegal Indians, nor do oil tankers ply near Dubai beaches (leave alone them being hit by Iranian missiles). That's a whole lot of tea mixed with coffee. Practitioners of journalism must also keep in mind the other, equally significant lesson they might have been taught while they were students: when in doubt, cut it out.


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