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An error in the archives

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

Last year in my column, “ >The enigma of terminology” (January 27, 2014), I looked at two instances of correcting errors that occurred more than a century ago. First, a correction carried on November 14, 2013 by a U.S. paper, The Patriot-News. On the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg address, The Patriot-News issued a retraction of its editorial of 1863 saying, “the Patriot & Union failed to recognise its momentous importance, timeless eloquence, and lasting significance. The Patriot-News regrets the error.” Second was a correction by the New York Times, which read: “This just in: we made a mistake — 136 years ago. It was in a Jan. 9, 1877 article about a police officer shot by a saloon burglar. The Times called him Officer McDonnell. His name was McDowell. The error came to light when we researched a correction to a recent article about the history of the New York Yankees logo. The record is now set straight.” At that time I did not imagine that within a year and a half, I will be correcting an error that occurred in The Hindu 90years ago.

On April 24, 2015, the Chennai edition of this newspaper carried a report to celebrate Civil Service Day. It was about a well-respected public servant, J. Venkatanarayana, who was the commissioner of Madras Corporation between 1925 and 1928. The report talked about a road in Theyagaraya Nagar named after him and the city’s tradition of naming roads after distinguished civil servants. But the catch was on the surname denoting the caste of the official. The Hindu report called him J. Venkatanarayana Reddi Naidu.

We got a call from his grandson, J.V. Harinath, wondering how The Hindu managed to mix two different caste surnames. He also brought a couple of books written by his grandfather as proof that his name was J. Venkatanarayana Nayudu, and not Venkatanarayana Reddi Naidu as published in the newspaper. This was an obvious mistake. How did it happen?

The Hindu has a binding editorial code, and clause 4 of that code clearly states: “The core editorial values, universally accepted today by all trustworthy newspapers and newspaper-owning companies, are truth-telling, freedom and independence, fairness and justice, good responsible citizenship, humaneness, and commitment to the social good. Practising these values requires, among other things, the Company’s journalists excelling in the professional disciplines, and especially the discipline of verifying everything that is published.” Did the reporter fail to verify the fact? From where did the unusual combination of two distinct caste names come together as a surname for a civil servant?

Verification process

The reporter had indeed verified the name before filing her report. She had looked at The Hindu archives, and found a June 30, 1925 report titled “Corporation Commissionership” that talked about the appointment of J. Venkatanarayana Reddi Naidu as the commissioner of Madras Corporation. But the second deck headline did not carry the double surnames and wrongly stated that J. Venkatanarayana Reddi was to be appointed. She also referred to another report from the archives dated May 8, 1928 that recorded a fact about Venkatanarayana being the first commissioner of the Corporation of Madras to remain in office for a full term of three years. But, there was no mention of the caste surname in the second report. It merely talked about Venkatanarayana’s achievements. Further, the history of the city also played a role. In June 1979, the then ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam government ordered that caste suffixes in the city’s street names be removed. The reporter could not trace the former name of Venkatanarayana Road. In this context, the unique combination of two caste surnames as it appeared in The Hindu in 1925 seemed to be of some historical significance, and she went ahead with the Reddi Naidu surname.

Who would have expected that everything in that surname, including the spelling of Naidu (it was Nayudu) was wrong? What happens if the archival materials contain an error? Is there a mechanism to correct the archives? The archives contains every issue of the newspaper, barring a few exceptions of late 19th century issues, both in physical as well as in microfilm formats. It is nearly impossible to correct the archives of the early years of The Hindu as they are not digitally alterable. However, when an error is noted during any research or during republication of material from the archives, a note of correction is issued to set the record straight. The archival content generated after the digital era of mid-1990s can be rectified for any error. As a policy to maintain the newspaper’s standing as the publication of record, we carry corrections and clarifications on weekdays and the content is altered in the newspaper’s web edition with a clear disclaimer that it has been corrected for an error spelling out the nature of the error. It can be either a factual error or an editing error. In this case, too, we have corrected the error that occurred in the edition dated April 24, 2015.

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Printable version | Jan 16, 2022 12:26:12 PM |

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