The Hindu believes it is the first newspaper in the history of Indian journalism to appoint a Readers' Editor. The Readers' Editor will be the independent, full-time internal ombudsman of The Hindu .

The key objectives of this appointment are to institutionalise the practice of self-regulation, accountability, and transparency; to create a new visible framework to improve accuracy, verification, and standards in the newspaper; and to strengthen bonds between the newspaper and its millions of print platform and online readers.

FROM THE READERS’ EDITOR | | The difference between a listening post and a hammer

‘The Huddle’, The Hindu Group of Publications’ annual thought conclave, participants invariably convert interactions on the sidelines into open house sessions. They compare how the topics that were discussed at The Huddle were covered by the newspaper in its pages. Some of them thought that the newspaper and The Huddle were a perfect fit as both share the idea of dialogue, debate and discussion. One them said that my definition of my role “where I begin from a position that all complaints are made in good faith and that no journalist comes to work to mislead readers” was limiting. He thought my columns worked well when I found fault with the reporters or the newspaper, but read defensive when they explained journalistic terms and theories. He was delighted with my column, “Journalism in the time of an epidemic” (February 10), and felt let down by the subsequent column, “Strident nationalism and rigorous journalism”(February 17).

Over a cup of coffee, I explained to him that as an internal news ombudsman, I always remember the saying, “To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” Many instances of overreach happen because of this attitude where there is little space for critical evaluation. My job is to critically evaluate complaints using journalistic yardsticks and examine whether or not the newspaper did a fair job of addressing them. It is neither about vindicating the newspaper’s writings nor about rejecting them.

Exchange of views

The session on the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) gave me an opportunity to explain the newspaper’s approach to contentious issues. I drew the attention of this reader to a study by Meltwater India that pointed out to the fact that “NDTV, [The] Hindu, Dainik Jagran [are the] biggest drivers for online conversation on CAA”. This study put The Hindu on top in the print category as it led the mScore based on editorial mentions, reach, and tonality for CAA-related stories.

When Yamini Aiyar, President of the Centre for Policy Research, pointed out that the CAA fundamentally upended the Constitution by creating two very distinct pathways of citizenship on the basis of religion, and how problematic it is to decouple the CAA from the proposed National Population Register and National Register of Citizens, as both are intrinsically intertwined, the reader who raised questions earlier acknowledged that there is a clear method in this newspaper’s approach to both reporting as well as debating issues. On the question of citizenship, he was able to see why I mentioned the case of the plantation Tamils of Sri Lanka and their statelessness in an earlier column, “The enemies of writing” (January 27, 2020). It was an exchange of views where a reader who did not agree with the editorial stand on some crucial contentious issues accepted later that there was a clear thinking behind the editorial judgment and that it was not guided by narrow partisan considerations.

Listening to diverse voices

The question of the “other” came up through the discussions. There were two panels in which the theme of “othering” came up for intense scrutiny. The first panel was on the Kashmir conundrum and the second one was on the age of the strongman and the rise of illiberal democracies. The participants realised that there is a need to listen to diverse voices rather seeking confirmation bias. They realised that critical voices against muscular nationalism are the ones that keep the space for plural society intact. The role for the media in this task, despite a lot of external pressures, is immense.

If the newspaper has to remain the site for a democratic mediation of ideas and to hold those in power accountable, the fundamental requirement is empathy. President Ram Nath Kovind said that The Hindu sticks to the five basic principles of journalism: truth-telling, freedom and independence, justice, humaneness, and contributing to the social good. These five pillars are raised on the foundation called empathy.

At the end of the conclave, the reader said that though his heart is with what BJP MP Rajeev Chandrasekhar said about the CAA, and what BJP national general secretary Ram Madhav’s said on Kashmir, he also realised that the opposing viewpoints had some rationale. He said that the government should be open for dialogue rather than implementing decisions without seeking people’s opinions. He said, “Please remain a listening post and never become a hammer.”

FROM THE READERS’ EDITOR | Trust in the age of misinformation

Journalism, Media, and Technology: Trends and Predictions 2020, documents the changing contours of the news business and how the industry is coping with the challenges posed by technology. It points out that at a time of economic and political uncertainty, news organisations may have to face more challenges to their sustainability. It says broken business models and platform companies are exacerbating the crisis.

Factors affecting journalism

The study also records a number of factors that are affecting journalism. It deals extensively with the impact of post-truth politics on journalism and has suggestions for news organisations on how to deal with this new reality. The study focusses mainly on the U.K. elections and the narratives surrounding Brexit. The findings are not encouraging: politicians have played with facts, avoided journalistic scrutiny, and succeeded in denigrating the media. The report cites the U.K.’s independent fact-checking organisation, Full Fact, which says that the six-week campaign saw “inappropriate and misleading campaign tactics that we hadn’t seen before”. The devious methods it saw included “an official Conservative Party Twitter account impersonating a fact-checking organisation and editing footage of a Labour politician to make it look as if he couldn’t answer a question about the party’s Brexit policy.”

The report says the reach of misinformation forced many news organisations to integrate fact-checking into their coverage and scrutinise politicians wherever possible. However, these special programmes did not get many views. The report points out that politicians are increasingly trying to bypass the media and convey messages directly via social media. Leaders across the world have become more belligerent than ever before, says the report, and cites the examples of Boris Johnson refusing to giving an interview to journalist Andrew Neil, the regular threats given to review the broadcast licenses handed out to media organisations such as Channel 4, and the funding arrangements for public media like the BBC.

Impact of fact-checking

While 85% of those surveyed said that the media should call out lies and half-truths, readership figures and audience engagement numbers indicate that growing indifference adds a new dilemma to news organisations. What is the impact of fact-checking? There is some indication that rigourous and relentless journalism sometimes leads to disengagement; people simply avoid reading the news. Can journalism effectively engage readers in the light of growing cynicism and negativity? Mary Hockaday, Controller, BBC World Service English, has come up with a possible answer: “We certainly need to offer fact checks and reality checks. But we also need content which explores good faith politics, what might be working, how policy develops and makes a difference. Otherwise we will push our audiences to disengage and distrust politics even more.”

These issues resonate with an Indian news ombudsman because this country is in constant election mode and political leaders here too use digital platforms for propaganda. It is not just Mr. Johnson who has refused to give an interview; Prime Minister Narendra Modi is in his second term and is yet to hold a single press conference. He also reaches his audience through his radio programme ‘Mann Ki Baat’, or Twitter, or soundbites to select news agencies which are not questioned. In a sense, we citizens get a series of monologues from our leaders.

Some of the best fact-check exercises in India happened following the brutal attack on the students of the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi. But they did not deter the peddlers of fake news from regurgitating the same old lies. What can a news organisation do in the present environment?

Journalists should bear in mind what Reuters Fellow Richard Fletcher says about the status of trust. He says the trust factor will get worse before it gets better. Explainers, contextual essays, increased space for data journalism, long-from reportage and analysis of difficult policy decisions are some of the journalistic means to confront the scourge of misinformation. Are these measures enough to stop the erosion of trust?

FROM THE READERS’ EDITOR | Making hope possible, not despair convincing

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