There are many lessons to be learnt from the publication and subsequent “Correction” (October 29, 2013) issued for the story titled “He has arrears in engineering, PhD in Physics” (October 28, 2013, some editions). While many readers appreciated the prompt retraction and acknowledgment of the mistake by the newspaper, they raised some questions that are worth sharing.
A doctoral scholar from the School of Oriental and African Studies, London, felt that the story “has put the concept of Open Access in a very bad light and this story unintentionally invokes the myth that Open Access is not a peer-reviewed process which is far from true.”
Another regular writer to the Office of the Readers’ Editor was disturbed by the story and he wrote: “Yesterday I had read the story with much circumspection. While I am happy that a post-facto hard look was taken at the report and remedial measure instituted quite fast, the very fact that the story got into the paper means there had been utter laxity. I didn't have an opportunity to look at the story (since taken down) on the University website and so I cannot comment on it. It seems that the reporter had swallowed hook, line and sinker the story presented by the student.”
He further raised many pertinent questions: “since earning a PhD from a foreign University is not that easy, some care must have been taken to check the veracity of the statements made by the student. ... There is a mention of some ‘supporting documents’. Did the reporter check these? Were they forged? Did he work in research labs in Kerala? Was any cross-checking done?” I have a job offer from Accenture” — Does he? An inquiry with the company would have brought out the truth. It seems that no due diligence was taken prior to publishing the story. Even the photograph appears to have been supplied by the man! If a report exposing the student's claims and if the Anna University had been taken to task for uploading some nonsense on its website, that would have been a great story.”
Failure on two fronts
There are two failings here — the reporter and the gatekeeping process at the city desk as the story appeared in the Chennai City pages. The reporter has failed to respect and practise the fundamental binding rule in journalism: never rely on a single source; always cross verify. The desk did not ask any hard and probing questions to the reporter who filed the story. It seems that both the desk and the reporter were lured by the romantic idea behind the story in which fact was the casualty.
But, this mistake is not in isolation. There seems to be a discernible pattern in slip-ups. Most of them happen to the reports filed by relatively junior reporters on Sunday for the Monday editions. My very first column on journalistic failure, “The gender lens” (October 22, 2012), was about an insensitive story on sexual assault on a law student in Bangalore. When I raised this issue with the then Bureau Chief of Bangalore, Parvathi Menon, who is now this paper’s U.K. Correspondent, she promptly took responsibility and wrote: “An inexperienced cub reporter, lax gatekeeping on a lean Sunday night, and a biased report the next morning. The reader has raised all the right questions on how to (or how not to) report sexual assaults. We are usually careful and gender sensitive in such matters — scrupulously avoiding any pointers that could identify the victim, and I am deeply distressed that such a thing happened. We apologise for this slip-up, and it is a lesson learnt.”
Laxity undermines journalism
Despite publishing this column a year ago, there seems to be a less-than-rigorous gatekeeping in various city bureaus and regional desks on Sundays. The maximum slip-ups are on the city pages and the regional pages that are processed on Sunday for Monday mornings. One of the regular writers from Andhra Pradesh, Mr. P.V. Ramana Rao, has unfailingly pointed out mistakes in the Vijayawada edition of this paper almost every alternate Monday. Mr. Ramana Rao was invariably right and the reporter was wrong. Another reader who manages to catch the Sunday bloomers with alacrity is Mr. V. Pandy from Thoothukudi.
The Vijayawada and Chennai bloomers have been cited to illustrate a case in point. It is pertinent to add that other regional pages — across the country — are not free from such afflictions.
In my column, “Is the hyper-local getting due attention?” (September 1, 2013), the importance of the city and regional pages was explored in detail. Readers understand inadvertence, but they do not forgive laxity.