“ In this media era, people expect stories and information to be constantly updated; the correction is, in essence, a form of update, albeit one that addresses past error rather than breaking news. Corrections must not be ghettoised or hidden or perceived as punishment; rather, they should be part of the job of reporting and editing.”
Craig Silverman in his Regret the Error — How Media Mistakes Pollute the Press and Imperil Free Speech (Sterling Publishing Co. Inc., New York. 2007)
One of the three “key objectives” behind the appointment of the Readers’ Editor of The Hindu, as stated in the preamble to the terms of reference, is “to create a new visible framework to improve accuracy, verification, and standards in the newspaper.” The other two aims are to institutionalise the practice of self-regulation, and to strengthen bonds between the newspaper and its readers including those of the online edition.
It is true that in respect of the objectives of self-regulation and strengthening newspaper-reader bonds, there is still a long way to go, given the complexities of the tasks involved. However, in the case of the objective of commitment to accuracy, I think even the sceptical among readers will recognise that the initiatives taken, over a three-year period, by the office of the Readers’ Editor with the cooperation of readers from many publishing centres have succeeded to a large extent in ensuring early detection of errors, resolving ambiguity in expression, and publishing timely corrections and clarifications.
What happens in this process is a joint effort by the newspaper and its alert and discerning readers dedicated to the cause of an error-free newspaper. Errors in the different editions of the paper spotted by readers in different parts of the country (and sometimes abroad) reach the office of the Readers’ Editor in Chennai through various channels of communication. After preliminary verification, they are sent, mostly by e-mail, to the heads of the editorial desk, bureau chiefs, or other persons connected with the production of the newspaper in the relevant centres for their response. Thus, only after checking with the journalists concerned does the Readers’ Editor decide on the corrections and clarifications. This procedure evolved by my predecessor, K. Narayanan, has been working remarkably well.
This is not possible without the support of the reporters and the editorial staff, independent of their place in the institutional hierarchy. If the reader observations are correct, the journalists confirm the mistakes and send their replies, promptly in most cases, for inclusion in the “Corrections and Clarifications” column, which is published in the Op-Ed page five days a week, Tuesday to Saturday. All error-related messages from readers are directly sent to the journalists or others concerned and their replies are obtained. There is no need for any reader to conduct personal verification with the reporter or other staff members. This rules out tensions and undue pressures that may possibly be generated by direct and possibly subjective confrontation between reader and journalist. (The reality is that some readers use intemperate and uncivil language in their letters, phone calls, and emails while commenting on reports in which they find errors.)
Most readers who participate in the process of corrections seem to be happy with the present arrangement. However, unfortunately, a few readers get the telephone numbers of the reporters or other editorial staff members and try to put pressure on them to get information. This not only embarrasses the journalists concerned but also affects their morale. A senior correspondent, known for his articles on subjects relating to issues of strategic importance, and interviews with leading scientists and technologists, says that under the pretext of seeking clarification these people try to extract from him information that goes beyond the article or interview. A young reporter says that such callers use harsh words, which badly affect “our commitment to the profession and also our self-respect.” Another says: “The journalists, particularly the young ones, are not necessarily experts in every field they report on. Whatever information we have we are willing to share with others. We can at best direct them to experts in the field. But they ask for more.”
It is evident that journalists working in a pressure-cooker situation, writing on a variety of subjects to tough deadlines, need to be protected from such pressures. However, as I have noted, only a small number of callers with hidden interests indulge in such games. Early in my role as Readers’ Editor, I was pleased to learn that notwithstanding the occasional unpleasant experience, The Hindu’s journalists have a good attitude: they willingly join knowledgeable and serious readers in this long process of achieving an error-free newspaper.
The effort to ensure accuracy, however, needs more than this. Training the journalists, providing necessary tools to them, and rewarding them for good work and for measurable improvement will go a long way in achieving this. Training, in fact, must begin much before young women and men enter the profession. The journalism schools can contribute a great deal to the cause of accuracy in journalism, which has been described as “the discipline of verification.”