One of the repeated questions I get from young readers and journalism students is about the institution of the Readers’ Editor itself. They want to know how the reporters and the desk at The Hindu respond to communications from the ombudsman’s office. Does it hurt their professional pride when mistakes are pointed out? Does it lead to course correction in a systematic manner? What are the tools I use to evaluate readers’ complaints? Is there peer pressure to gloss over mistakes?
It would be pertinent to first locate the institution of the Readers’ Editor (RE) within the larger framework of a major multi-edition daily like The Hindu before answering these questions. The key objectives of the RE’s office 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. (For more details see Readers’ Editor, The Hindu: Terms of Reference — thne.ws/1hxIih4)
How the system works
The efficacy of this institution flows from the deep commitment of the senior editorial team and the senior management to listen to criticisms and act upon them. It is a professional arrangement where criticisms are evaluated on their merits. No one takes any personal offence to fair criticism from readers. On the other hand, there are internal deliberations about how to rectify mistakes and produce an error-free newspaper.
I have often heard Aidan White, director of Ethical Journalism Network, saying that although journalists are ready to make lacerating criticism of people in public life, they are reluctant to admit their own mistakes. I can assure the readers of this newspaper that no one here indulges in this ultimately self-defeating exercise. Both the Editor-in Chief and the Editor do not take complaints lightly. They value a quick right of reply or a published correction. The Hindu remains a responsible and free media because the commitment to core values and cardinal principles of journalism is shared from the top of the media pyramid to its base.
Let me share an instance to illustrate how the rectification mechanism works in this paper. On December 23, 2013, I wrote a column, “When coordination fails,” based on readers’ complaints about repetition of stories in different pages. I had recalled the suggestion given by the first Readers’ Editor, K. Narayanan: “What is needed is a coordinator who can take an overall view of the whole paper. This is the structural gap. The task is now split among a few with no centralised checking. Some reorientation, accompanied by accountability, is the solution.”
The Editor took up the issue. As a part of her initiative to put in place a system of excellence that can give a new sense of order and sequence in content patterns, enliven and brighten up pages in terms of style and substance, and to raise the game to a whole new plane, she also designated a person in charge of overall coordination to avoid the repetition. It had a visible impact. Within a month, the duplication of stories stopped across multiple editions.
Tackling the unexpected
But the challenges in a newspaper do not come within a prescribed template. There is always something unexpected or unintended that manages to claw its way through a diligent set of rules. On April 22, 2014, two reporters from two different cities covered and filed a same story. In the Chennai edition of the newspaper, Delhi reporter Devesh K. Pandey’s story titled “IAAS officer arrested on graft charges” was carried on page 5 and a Chennai-based special correspondent’s report titled “CBI nabs official’s kin in bribery case” was published on page 7.
Now, this is technically not a repetition. The peg of the Delhi story was the arrest of a 2005-batch officer of the Indian Audits and Accounts Service (IAAS), posted as a director at the office of Director-General of Audit, Central Expenditure on the charge of receiving a bribe of Rs.5 lakh to “regularise” a nursing college in Chennai. The Chennai report was about trapping the brother-in-law of the same Delhi-based Indian Audit and Accounts Service Officer in the same case. The fact of the matter is that the story originated simultaneously from two centres. The two reporters dutifully followed it up and filed their reports. But, none noticed that both reports dealt with the same official for the same crime.
When this was pointed out, the Editor convened an emergency meeting. As a standing instruction to all editions she has urged all senior editors to up their antennae with regard to reports that may have multiple points of reference. She has also directed them to be watchful against reports from the newspaper’s correspondents and agencies on the same subject being duplicated. The Editor has made it mandatory that a careful scan of all pages is done at each centre before typesetting. Specific responsibility has to be assigned to individuals in order to ensure that this works. Instances of duplication will be viewed with due seriousness and accountability with consequences enforced henceforth. This, indeed, illustrates that the institution of self-regulation works.