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Updated: September 30, 2013 00:07 IST

The adjective filter

A.S. Panneerselvan
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A.S. Panneerselvan. Photo: S.R. Raghunathan
The Hindu A.S. Panneerselvan. Photo: S.R. Raghunathan

One of the most difficult tasks before a reporter is to ruthlessly separate news and opinion. The editorial code of this paper says that “The Hindu shall, as a rule, maintain a clear distinction between news, critical analysis, and opinion in its editorial content and shall not editorialise or opinionate in news reports.” How then can one explain the frequent breaching of this rule? The latest example is the Page 1 story on Saturday (Sept. 28, 2013), ‘Rahul blitz makes party see new light’. Can we take comfort in the fact that compared to others there are fewer transgressions in this paper?

Greek mythologies used the grand seer Tiresias to answer tricky questions. Tiresias was both a man and a woman, had an existence that was literally suspended between being a mortal and an immortal as he had seven lives. He was able to see the future because he was blind. By constructing his persona in a very fluid manner, where multiple identities coalesce and differ at various times, the mythologies managed to give him an insight that was drawn both from his wisdom and personal experience. T.S. Eliot understood this possibility and made Tiresias the narrator of his masterpiece The Wasteland. I wish I had the multiple identities of Tiresias to look at this issue from various viewpoints. Nonetheless, let me try to find an answer.

For many reporters, journalism is not merely a careerist pursuit. They believe that media is a site for democratic mediation of ideas. No journalistic discourse can be totally free from ideas and political orientations.

In this context, a neutral, distant, sanitised media becomes an elusive goal. But, it does not give room for distorting facts or creating myths. The sacrosanct line that divides news and views must be fully respected even to take forward a viewpoint or an ideological argument to its logical fruition. I have argued elsewhere that anyone who wants a space in public sphere comes in with a worldview and does not operate in vacuum. Here the argument gets its gravitas by a rigorous process of refining, redefining and enriching based on empirical data and sharpened intellectual input. The reportage in the newspaper should be rich in empiricism to enable a cutting edge analysis.

Principle and practice

The principles are clear, yet practice becomes problematic because of myriad reasons. The primary reason is that reporters are wont to providing the colour, the emotions, and the possible trajectories an event may take. It is this desire to give the full picture that often forces reporters to resort to adjectives — a grammatical device that converts news into views. Many years ago, William Safire wrote that the adjective is the mortal enemy of the noun and it would be prudent to write lean and mean. There is a need to fully decipher, inculcate and practise this advice.

I had been both a reporter and an editor. As a reporter, I did not show much restraint in the use of adjectives. But, the published reports were shorn of these qualifiers. My editors exercised caution. I was told repeatedly to let the facts speak for themselves. Why ‘gruelling poverty’ and why not just ‘poverty’? Why ‘devious ploy’ and why not ‘ploy’? I was told that adjectives were a dumbing down exercise that failed to respect the interpretative qualities in readers. The desire to express everything you saw, heard and experienced cannot alter the rules of good reporting. As an editor, I absorbed the advice and started deploying an important editorial device called adjective filter.

The adjective filter helps the news to emerge from the emotional cauldron of the on-field experience without being judgemental. It is rather difficult not to be judgemental, especially, if one is reporting on human tragedies like forced migration or deprivation. But, permitting one’s emotions to colour a copy has an opposite effect. It undermines the other important sections of the newspaper — the editorial and the opinion pages. If the report is going to be an evaluation of a developing story, then the editorial and the opinion gets reduced to the status of an addendum.

Now, let us look at some of the phrases used in the story that triggered this column: ‘Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi’s intemperate criticism of the government’, ‘the clumsiness of the attack sending confused signals’, ‘With this outburst’, ‘nothing could have been more embarrassing than the Congress vice president’s bombshell’, and ‘he made a dramatic exit’. These adjectives in the news report have virtually made the editorial look tame. If a reporter is overwhelmed by what she is covering, it becomes the duty of the desk to subject the copy to the adjective filter in order to restore the dividing line between news and views.

readerseditor@thehindu.co.in

I agree with Mr. Sridharan.

from:  Abhinav
Posted on: Oct 1, 2013 at 09:13 IST

Dear sir,

Refreshing I must say. I would like to see more readers' responses to
your last week's justification. I cannot believe you received only
three and all of them supporting you.
So much for where your credibility stands. For information, if it at
all matters to you, I have been reading Hindu for the last more than
forty years. I continue to buy Hindu for the ads and another newspaper
for independent news. So you have not lost a client you have certainly
lost a reader.

from:  K.Ravishankar
Posted on: Oct 1, 2013 at 08:59 IST

This newspaper usage of liberal adjectives with reference to BJP is well
known.When that is applied to "crown prince" readers editor is worried
.

from:  rajaram
Posted on: Sep 30, 2013 at 22:19 IST

Being in a world of 'adjectives or opinions', reader is capable to use
this adjective filter. I have been using this machine when you talk
about Modi and Times of India writes on corporates and Real estates. We
know you better.

from:  P. M. Mubashir
Posted on: Sep 30, 2013 at 20:11 IST

Apologies, but what was reported was the truth! Any deviation from this
would have been manufactured or watered-down!

from:  Vinod Kumar B.
Posted on: Sep 30, 2013 at 18:55 IST

I have always maintained that it is good both for The Hindu and its readers that if TH has a particular political affiliation, it make this stand public, so that readers do not expect "neutral" reporting and are able to appreciate the newspaper for what it is. The problem is that while The Hindu has a severe anti-BJP bias, which even the most ignorant can identify and which many old-time readers have repeatedly pointed out, it tries to portray its reporting as "balanced" and "neutral". I am sorry, but I do not see it so. I also wish to add that when the other side does not get its democratic due by the media, it is always a dampener for democracy, freedom of speech and the efforts to build an informed society. When reporting, both journalistic ethics and the vox populi suggest the need to appreciate the fact that the BJP is for all practical purposes the only Opposition party in the country, and if not for the BJP, we might as well abandon democracy and embrace monarchy.

from:  Luhar Sen
Posted on: Sep 30, 2013 at 15:43 IST

I am amused to read a few responses to the Readers' Editor's observations on news and views. He goes by his role definition and often uses a recent report or column that had apperared in this newspaper to drive home his point, in this case, defining the thin line of demarkation between report and edit. He never imposes, his political leanings if he has any, on the reader. As such it is an unfair criticism of him for 'not applying the adjective filter' on Modi-specific reports and making a song and dance about Raghul-reports. Song and dance - hope this too goes through a syntatic filter:-)

from:  era murukan
Posted on: Sep 30, 2013 at 15:31 IST

It is almost laughable of the issue you took up to clarify your stand on The Hindu "outburst" headlines. But do clarify why only an article on Raul Gandhi's makes you attentive? This newspaper has been slandering Narendra Modi and Gujrat for many years in both News and editorials.

from:  harsh vs
Posted on: Sep 30, 2013 at 11:21 IST

Sir, your sensibilities seem to be aroused only when Rahul Gandhi's actions are subjected to 'adjectives' by your reporter. For decades now, your reporters have been subjecting BJP to a much harsher barrage of negative adjectives even while reporting routine news items about them. I can very well understand editorial content or massed attacks on the so-called Sangh Parivaar by a few op-ed contributors even as the newspaper is unwilling to give space for rebuttal by the other party; but, news reports have 'escaped' close scrutiny when reporting about the Sangh Parivaar. This has led to erosion of credibility in The Hindu, something that I never expected would happen even 25 years back. You would have done well if you restored the 'balance' in The Hindu. Of course, you might conclude that I m a Hindutvawadi or a BJP supporter, both of which are farthest from truth. I am simply a nationalist unafraid of telling the truth as I see it.

from:  S.Sridharan
Posted on: Sep 30, 2013 at 09:01 IST

Newspapers are also subject to evolution. As a reader of The Hindu for half a century, it is
clear that the paper has generally become more judgemental in reporting over the past two
decades. There is a perceptible shift to the left on most issues and a further distancing from
the right. This is not necessarily a violation of journalistic ethics. As rightly stated, nothing
ever operates in a vacuum. Readers are also capable of discerning the adjectives from the
nouns, not just the editorial staff. With more mature and better informed readers, sanitised
news is less critical today.

from:  Viswanath
Posted on: Sep 30, 2013 at 08:30 IST

Your filters may be appropriate here but you seemed to go overboard in applying your filters in reports covering Muzaffarnagar communal violence. Such filters applied overall by media may have lead to spread of rumours in social media as people had come to distrust media. The incidence of murder due to stalking of a girl and retaliatory two murders had been handled in partisan manner by the police with selective arrests. Since media failed to cover it properly it lead to losing of trust in media and to extensive rumour mongering and people tended to believe in all that appeared in social media. Proper coverage in the beginning may not have lead to people depending on social media. Riots had occurred 10-11 days after the initial incident and hence the question of the filters did not apply then.

from:  ashok sudan
Posted on: Sep 30, 2013 at 02:15 IST
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