From the Readers' Editor Readers' Editor

A text without a context is a pretext

CHENNAI, 16/10/2014: A.S. Panneerselvan, The Hindu Readers' Editor. Photo: V.V.Krishnan   | Photo Credit: V_V_KRISHNAN

The dictum “a text without a context is a pretext” may have theological origins but it has a bearing on journalism. David Halberstam, a 1964 Pulitzer Prize winner, explained the value of providing context to a story. He urged journalists to be creative in order to make stories important, and to provide a sense of context in order to make sure the stories are remembered. He argued for the need to show why a particular piece of information is important and amounts to something. He firmly believed that the context is often more important than the event itself.

There are two ways in which the context emerges in a newspaper story. In stand-alone stories, the context is woven into the text. In evolving stories, a series of follow-up articles provide the framework, background, and perspective to the story. In The Hindu, I have noticed that evolving stories invariably succeed in providing a context. Two recent examples are the Mathura violence case and the role of the Central Board of Film Certification in dealing with the feature film Udta Punjab. However, there are some stand-alone stories that have failed to provide the context, forcing a follow-up report that repudiates the earlier report. This happens because reporters fail to utilise in-house resources — the archives, available data stories, and the domain expertise of colleagues — effectively.

Failing the context test

Let me examine two stories that failed the context test. The first was a report titled “Farmer ends life over ‘poor’ crop” (June 6, 2016) which claimed that R. Rajendran, a cotton-grower from Sothriyam village in Tiruvarur district, consumed pesticide as he was worried about the stunted growth of his cotton crop. The next day, the same reporter said in the story titled “Farmer committed suicide after domestic quarrel” that it was a domestic quarrel, and not failed crops or mounting debts, that led to Rajendran’s suicide.

This newspaper has covered farmers’ distress in a detailed manner over the last two decades. One of the key markers in all these stories was that distress was never restricted to a single farmer, but to a group of them cultivating crops in geographically contiguous areas. Last year, this newspaper carried an interesting data story, “India’s new farm suicides data: myths and facts” (July 24) that should be a working guide to any reporter covering deprivation in the agrarian sector. The data story begins with an interesting caveat: “There has been a lot of misreporting and conspiracy theorising about the new farm suicide numbers.” There are three important takeaways from that story. One, it is wrong to assume that all farmer suicides are agriculture-related. There is a range of official reasons behind a suicide, as per the First Information Report (the sum of which makes up NCRB numbers). Two, the NCRB in 2015 split farmers into ‘cultivators’ and ‘agricultural labourers’. This is not a new or unusual classification system, the report stated; the Census also uses the same classification, for instance. Three, bankruptcy contributes significantly more to farm suicides than to other suicides, the report found.

On May 31 this year, there was a front-page report from Delhi, “Bad blood: 2,234 get HIV after transfusion”. It was also repudiated the next day with another report. The first report was based on the data released by the National AIDS Control Organisation (NACO) in response to a Right to Information query. The next day, the newspaper had to carry a rejoinder from NACO that placed the entire issue in the proper context. NACO said the numbers were based on self-reporting on the method of contracting HIV at the Integrated Counselling and Testing Centres (ICTC) in various States. The organisation’s statement read: “The information provided in response to the RTI refers to information on self-reported transmission of HIV recorded by counsellors from clients attending the ICTC. This is not further corroborated by any scientific means to confirm that transmission is indeed due to blood transfusion… Blood transfusion accounts for less than 1 per cent of total HIV infection and there is no increasing trend in HIV transmission through blood, as reflected in the ICTC data.”

Journalistic scrutiny

Over the last two decades, we have seen growing sensitivity in reporting HIV/AIDS. Most reporters are now aware of the social stigma and discrimination faced by HIV/AIDS patients. Given the fact that some people have strong views about sexual behaviour and the stereotyping of high prevalence groups, professionals involved in providing medical aid and counselling care for HIV/AIDS patients record self-reporting on virus transmission without subjecting the patients to harrowing questioning. These professionals never take this self-declaration as scientific proof nor do they devise policy based on these reports. A rose may be a rose in any context and may smell as sweet in any other name. But numbers from a vulnerable section need proper journalistic scrutiny and cannot be used to generate panic. I urge all reporters covering health to read Tara Haelle’s piece, “Context, context, context: How journalists can avoid confusing readers with the latest research findings”, written for the Center for Excellence in Health Care Journalism, before embarking on reporting on this crucial subject.

readerseditor@thehindu.co.in


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