I am grateful to the number of readers who had responded to my last column, “The adjective filter” (September 30, 2013). The opinions were varied, and their import differed but there was one common thread that linked all the respondents, journalists of this newspaper and myself as its Readers’ Editor. It was the deep commitment to quality journalism.
My role as the Readers’ Editor is to ensure that there is no wavering of this commitment. To uphold the principles of journalism, it is important to have a constant dialogue with the readers, to ensure that there is a multi-nodal communication flow, and to locate the process of news making within the broadest theoretical principle that governs our democracy — justice.
These columns are part of informing the readers of the building blocks of journalism and public discourse. Some readers question the theoretical and the academic references in my columns. They felt that it was a digression. It was a conscious decision. A free, independent, vibrant media was the product of nearly three centuries of struggle and commitment by countless men and women.
There is no media literacy programme in our school or college curriculum, but the media envelops our life. Readers of this paper bring in a body of expertise in their responses that is rich in its interdisciplinary wisdom. But, sometimes, it is evident from their responses that many readers are not aware of the internal functioning of a newspaper that is committed to a set of values and cardinal principles. As a part of mutual learning experience, these columns are used to share the rules that govern journalism and the wider media ecology. My idea is to arm every reader with adequate journalism tools. I believe that an informed reader can ask the right questions and make a newspaper accountable.
How do we make something accountable? There should be a well-thought-out framework to put the evaluatory questions in perspective. Here, another question may provide some answers to understand the framework. Why should a major media house — be it The New York Times or The Guardian or The Hindu — opt for a journalist, and not a legal luminary, to be its ombudsman? A legal mind can definitely help articulate many of the issues that are often referred to the ombudsmen. But, it may not always able to make a crucial distinction in its judgments — to distinguish between an inadvertent mistake and the total lack of professional ethics.
An ombudsman — whether from a legal background or journalism background — has to address the questions of fairness, accuracy and truth telling. But the difference lies in the approach to the task. A journalist tries to look at five issues simultaneously — freedom of expression, right to information, responsibility to society, to pass on the information as early as possible in the most credible fashion and acknowledge constraints within the wider work environment. Here, the role of the ombudsman is to offer course correction and rectification of mistakes rather than being punitive for the errors that might have crept in inadvertently. A journalist ombudsman takes a tough stand when there is a clear dereliction of duty or non-adherence to the first principles of journalism.
My engagement with the readers is to delineate these fine dividing lines. Before expanding on this theme let me share some of the comments I received from the readers. The former director of the Madras Institute of Development Studies, V.K. Natraj, wrote: “I just wanted you to know how very much I appreciated your piece on the ‘adjective filter’. In my view this should be mandatory advice not only to journalists but social scientists in general.” Another reader from Auroville said: “In today’s column, ‘The adjective filter’, you persuasively write of the need to separate news and opinion and give a practical example of one way in which news reporting can be drained of emotion (by the extirpation of adjectives). Hemingway would have approved.” Another regular writer took an opposite view and observed: “After the TV news channels’ live coverage and debates the previous day, the news is already old when the morning paper comes. So I wonder whether a bland report such as “Rahul criticises ordinance” the next day will have any impact.” He went on further and contended that the readability comes from journalists with a flair for writing and wondered why that should be curbed. I agree that 24x7 television and the real-time digital platforms do pose challenges for a daily. However, blurring the lines is not confronting the challenge but succumbing to it.
This newspaper is committed to maintaining two crucial dividing lines — one between the business and the editorial processes and the other between news and editorial and opinions. Living our values is a binding document, and hence, it becomes the duty of the Readers’ Editor to point out when there is a deviance. There is adequate space in the newspaper for opinions — editorial, lead article, op-ed, magazine and features. This newspaper’s credo is to maintain its exemplary tradition of a general daily newspaper of record, as clearly stated in the editorial code, and hence the need to distinguish news and views.