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Online : Sense of propriety in news and design

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Perceptions differ, so also news values. The content of a newspaper evokes varying reactions among readers, depending on the angle from which one sees. At the other end of the chain, in the selection of a news item for inclusion in the paper, various factors influence the choice there are no doubt uniformly accepted basic norms, but subjectivism also is an element in this process. I have dealt with these issues earlier, but they figure here again, triggered by the reaction to a recent news report.

For a professional newsman I have been one for over half a century now an Indian woman topping the class in a prestigious journalism school, and bagging a fellowship to boot, was really hard news. But it was not so for a few readers of The Hindu. Shocking, blatant nepotism, parochial behaviour, out of character, dynastic politics these were some of the epithets in the messages I received from readers. The reason for their anger? The genealogy and inheritance of the person receiving this distinction.

"Nepotism" means special treatment and unfair preference for a relative. Vidya Ram is the daughter of N. Ram, Editor-in-Chief of

The Hindu, but what she achieved at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, was really unique and deserving notice. She topped this highly competitive school's 2007 class of 250+ M.S. programme students it is extremely rare for a foreign student to do this and received a Pulitzer fellowship for travel. The inclusion of this news in the main paper, "not tucked away in a corner of MetroPlus," as one reader suggested, was a question of judgment. In heading, display and positioning, the element of subjectivism also comes into play. As with any judgment, there will be dissent, sometimes strong and loud. This was neither local nor provincial news to be called parochial. As for "dynastic politics", The Hindu is a 100 per cent family-owned newspaper and the family has been in control. Vidya and her cousins will be the fifth generation of the family working in the newspaper, should they decide to join it (so far, it appears, nobody has). "Dynasty" and "family" have acquired an unsavoury connotation in recent times, but that need not extend to all cases.

Would the daughter of an ordinary employee have got the same coverage, asked one reader. She would, and should, for any similar achievement or distinction. The Civil Services examination topper from Tamil Nadu this year (K. Nandakumar, all-India 30th rank and State first) was a lorry driver's son and his feat received due notice. Eight school students from India participated in the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (Intel ISEF), Albuquerque [New Mexico, U.S.] a few days ago. The Hindu wrote on their participation and work.

There was also a note of appreciation. "It is a matter of joy for all in India," said one reader.

* * *

One communicator [addressless], made the observation that readers do not have much say in the choice of news items (which is a practical impossibility) and stretched it to comment that the concept of readers' editor was mere eyewash. At the risk of sounding repetitive, let me say this the readers' editor has no role in the selection and publication of news; he corrects and clarifies independently, post-publication; and writes on a variety of subjects independently of the editorial and marketing departments of the newspaper. Let me reiterate that this is a professional role and it is a professional view I have taken.

That professional approach also made me agree with Mr. Raghunanda of Bangalore who protested against the last page of The Hindu of May 2, 2007. "I thought I was looking at a badly designed full-page advertisement ... It took me quite some time to realise that the page carried reportage as well as an advertisement ... What is at stake is more a sense of propriety than a sense of design ... I would very strongly urge that The Hindu continue to maintain its high standards." Alan Herbert of Auroville also criticising this display, wanted a layout where the reader can "immediately understand when they are reading a news item and when they are reading an advertisement." The advertisement for a two-wheeler had graphics all over the page, with news reports tucked in around these. "Newscape" on the last page does carry lighter stuff, but this page would really have been tough on a demanding and systematic reader, as distinct from a scanner. So I'm with the reader on this issue.

readerseditor@thehindu.co.in


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