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  • Writer's pictureTeam Via News Didi

What can the Poonam Pandey debacle teach us?

Model Poonam Pandey fooled us all- ordinary citizens and professional journalists when she faked her own death to spread awareness about cervical cancer. It’s safe to say that the internet has some very strong opinions about this little stunt and also the extensive media coverage it got. Let's see what students, teachers and journalists have to say on the issue!

Well, to break this incident down (and to learn from it), we need to start at the very beginning. So, here’s a quick recap of what’s happened.

What was the incident?

Coverage on Pandey's death. Source: NDTV website

1st Feb: Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced the government's plans to focus on a cervical cancer vaccine campaign for girls aged 9 to 14 as part of the Interim Budget 2024.

2nd Feb: Poonam Pandey’s manager posted about her death on Instagram, through her Instagram account. The post claimed that Pandey lost her life to cervical cancer.

Her team gave interviews to news organizations News18 and ANI confirming her death.

News organizations posted widely and reported on her death.

3rd Feb: Hauterrfly, an online platform for women, created a collab post with Poonam Pandey’s official account and uploaded a video on Instagram, declaring that Pandey was alive, and that her “bold act aims to spotlight the urgency of regular screenings, early detection, and the power of knowledge in conquering this silent threat.”

A link to her website, was also shared (the website is no longer active, but domain registration records show that the website was created on 18th July, 2023)

Well, we’re all caught up now. So

What happened as a result of the incident?

The Good

  • Inquiries for cervical cancer screening and the HPV vaccine increased

In this X post, journalist Kuldeep Tiwari who writes for the Ahmedabad Mirror, shares that inquiries and demands for the HPV vaccine have increased in Ahmedabad. However, gynaecologists are far from pleased, since this increase is primarily driven by fear.

However, educators like Nilabja Das, a grade 3 teacher at NPV, Sangam Vihar, highlight a different side of the issue.

"At first, like everyone else, I thought it was a bizarre way to address an important issue. A conversation with a friend however changed my mind, women’s health is immensely devalued. Medical science still does not have answers to so many of female health issues in the 21st century and that should be more concerning to us. The fact that a PR agency even thought that it might hit with such a stunt around women’s health issues is because it is truly not talked about. For the few hours that people thought she was dead, there were infinite posts on instagram advocating for cervical cancer awareness. 

Of course, I do not condone her methods but there is a deeper issue to think about here."

On the other hand, students like Parnika Sahu, a 12th grader at Choithram Manik Bagh, Indore, wonder if this incident has caused more harm than good.

"I liked the intention, but the execution was EXTREMELY poor. Terrible. It did succeed in creating more awareness about cervical cancer, but at what cost?

It was a mockery of people who lost their lives to cancer. Unlike Poonam Pandey, they can't magically "resurrect".

What was even more terrible was the fact that her managers and team confirmed the news. Who can we trust in the future?"

The Bad

  • Apologies were issued over the controversy the death and its reversal had created 

Pandey and the PR agency that created this campaign put out posts and videos, apologising for the hurt they may have caused due to the initiative.

These apologies were met with mixed reactions. As grade 12 student Krittika Majumder shares,

X users critiquing Pandey's campaign. Source: X

"While the Poonam Pandey controversy is marked by a crass violation of ethics, we cannot really deny that it has sparked conversations in earnest on cervical cancer. Awareness on cancers primarily affecting women is not a thing too uncommon, but I feel it has chiefly been confined to breast cancer and at times, ovarian. However, obviously, the approach that Pandey's PR team took, in the name of a "campaign", was a step too rashly ambitious. There were a host of alternatives they could've resorted to for their cause rather than thoughtlessly faking the model's death. I feel it only resulted in a loss of credibility and an irreparable plunge from the place Pandey held as a celebrity with however much respect and admiration she evoked from the world."

The Ugly

  • People want Poonam Pandey to face legal repercussions for her ‘publicity stunt’

The All Indian Cine Workers Association issued a statement criticizing Pandey, and have urged the Mumbai Police Commissioner to register an FIR against her and her manager.

These sentiments are reflected by plenty of people online as well, who’ve taken to social media platforms to criticise Pandey’s stunt, students included. As 8th grader Laya Pallavan shares,

"I am sure that millions of people, not only in India but around the globe, lose their family members owing to several types of cancer. I will never be able to truly comprehend the immense pain that they must have felt. The recent incident involving Poonam Pandey’s “I’m alive” video has stirred emotions and raised questions…. Stooping this low for a few views and claiming it a part of an awareness campaign is just not okay. 

The pandemic has already taken a heavy toll on families in India and the pain of losing a loved one is immeasurable. People yearn for one moment with those they have lost. It is saddening to see this sensitive matter being violated…. It is appalling to see the magnitude of anger, pain, and pure hate this has caused. It’s a stark reminder of the power and responsibility that comes with sharing information in the digital age."

Laya’s inputs help us raise yet another important question:

What can we learn from the incident?

Advertising can be done ethically

Bournvita wanted to send a meaningful and strong reminder to society not to force kids into preset career paths. So, they ran a campaign where consumers encountered Bournvita, but in forms that weren’t the usual bottle - a toilet cleaner jar, an egg box, a tissue paper box, even a ketchup bottle. The move started a conversation around the pressure that students feel at the choice of a career.

Celebrities can raise awareness for worthy causes responsibly

Celebrities campaigning for causes is not a new occurrence. Take Amitabh Bachchan’s campaigns for polio vaccinations in 2002. The need was to appeal to the wider population to take children for polio vaccinations. So, Bachchan, in a stern tone, talked to mothers to bring their children to vaccination camps. 

The result? Mothers started thronging Pulse Polio camps in all of rural India. When asked what's making them come to the camps now, most of them said that ‘they thought Amitabh ji had become angry, and they came because they didn't want to anger him further.’

And, while several other factors led to the eventual win, Bachchan’s campaign played a big role in India becoming a polio-free country in 2014. 

As individuals, we need to get better at verifying information

An Instagram post from Faye D'Souza, where she outlines her reasons for not reporting on the death of Poonam Pandey

This incident has shown us that news organizations can most definitely fall prey to such ‘campaigns’. And not for a fault of their own. We asked Muskaan Ahmed, Features Writer at Times of India, about the role that news outlets play in such a situation.

"Readers don't have to understand what happens while covering or reporting a story; that's why we do that job for them- getting the background, facts and angles and presenting it to them. Even if media outlets took the initiative to reach out to Poonam Pandey's family or manager to fact-check, they would have received a response that supported their "campaign" and this, unfortunately, affects the credibility and reliability of the media outlet."

This only means that we need to get better at verifying information at our own levels. 10th grader, Vivaan Banerjee sums it up better that we ever could.

"I feel this (incident) serves as a lesson for the masses on the importance of media literacy. While there isn’t any reasonable way we could’ve possibly known as common individuals that this news was concocted; there is so much that we can stand to decode and unveil the actual ‘truth’ as opposed to consuming tailored content. Especially, in an age where there’s no real method to filter content as true and untrue without using one’s own detection skills."

Tips for us all to be responsible consumers of social media:

We’re going to continue being bombarded with such information. And we’re just as responsible for the spread of such information as the people that create it. So, what can we do? Muskaan suggests that

Readers should ensure fact-checking and authenticating the news story from their end before sharing it on social media and their circles to stop the spread of misinformation.

Here are 3 tips from us on how you can filter and verify information on your own:

Read Laterally

When you come across a news piece that rings alarm bells, look for it on other websites. See what other sources are saying on the topic. Compare the information you receive, so you’re not just getting it from one source.

Feeling any Emotions?

News pieces that trigger strong emotions in you, like those of anger, sadness, joy, pride or even confusion, are ones you should read more carefully. Emotions may cloud your judgement, and hence have you believing the information more readily, instead of reading it critically.

Read with Context

Any information we read in an article has a larger context to it. For example, to understand Poonam Pandey’s campaign, we need to take a look at the events that took place before and after her campaign, like the Finance Minister’s announcement, the information provided by Pandey’s team, and even general information around cervical cancer. 

This means that to understand any issue better, we read more than just the one article in front of us.

Written by Team Via News Didi.

Edited by Sukriti Pant

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