From the readers’ Editor | Readers' Editor

An open-and-shut case

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The objective of the RE’s office is to uphold the core values and the cardinal principles of journalism

The manuals and the terms of reference for a news ombudsman do not offer any clues to deal with the emotional toll this job takes as a natural corollary. It is left to the individual Readers’ Editor to evolve a personal code to deal with it. I draw my strength from the old philosophical school of stoicism and Leo Tolstoy’s words: “If so many men, so many minds, certainly so many hearts, so many kinds of love.” How does one make sense of the queries, debates, controversies, and the many kilobytes of sparring over three widely different news items published in this newspaper: a column on ethical challenges posed by sting journalism, a report on Aryan migration based on studies in genetics, and a feature profile of an actor in which he said that “upma must be declared the national dish”?

For readers to get a sense of the multiple pulls generated by the digital platforms and the 24x7 news channels for a legacy media organisation like The Hindu, let me first explain the upma controversy. Tamil actor-director R. Parthiban was profiled in the Metro Plus supplement. He spoke about his early days spent in poverty, and said it was upma, a dish that requires few ingredients, that was his staple diet and that it should be declared the ‘national dish’. However, one of the 24x7 news channels picked up the story to discover, or rather invent, a “culinary chauvinism” and an “attempt from deep south to impose a particular food habit across the sub-continental sized country”. What should a news ombudsman do when a colourful idiom used by an artist to bring out the cruelty of poverty becomes the theme for a manufactured controversy? I chose to ignore it.

Dealing with responses

My column on sting journalism referred to the ‘Ground Zero’ section of this newspaper as an example of contemporary, rigorous journalism, and I cited the report on Aryan migration as an example of a story that can never be substituted by sting operations. This was conflated with my next column in which I had dealt with complaints against the ‘Ground Zero’ story on Aryan migration.

One of the readers, Subramanyam, commented: “I do not understand why the RE should take cudgels on behalf of an author whose article has been criticised by readers. These are between the author and the critics and no RE has any role to interpose himself/herself in this affair unless some readers had brought some objection to the notice of the RE. If the RE wants to intercede like this, it makes the very idea of ‘Readers’ Editor’ questionable and makes one wonder whether he/she is an RE or an ER (Editor’s Reader). By referring unnecessarily and irrelevantly to this article in your ‘sting vs. investigative journalism’ column, you betrayed a certain mindset and this, again, unnecessary intervention now on behalf of the author lends more credence to that betrayal. Criticism or applause for an article is in the normal course of events unless somebody notifies the RE of grave errors etc. Did that happen here? Or, is this needed to pre-emptively ‘justify’ the editorial judgment?”

Mr. Subramanyam is right in ascertaining that the column betrayed a certain mindset. The mindset of a RE is to uphold the core values and the cardinal principles of journalism, and to permit an independent space to document facts, ideas and research, immaterial of whether it creates resonance or dissonance with a section. Tony Joseph’s article on Aryan migration was taken up for close scrutiny because readers wrote to this office questioning the veracity of the article. And there was a method to all the criticism as most of them drew their arguments from Anil Kumar Suri’s counter-article. It was no longer between the author of the article and the readers, as Mr. Subramanyam suggests. It was a formal query from multiple readers. Hence, it was incumbent on an RE to examine the article. This is neither an act of interceding on behalf of the author nor a pre-emptive act to justify the editorial judgment.

The issues I examine are clearly open-and-shut cases where I look only at the journalistic yardsticks — accuracy, verification, and proper sourcing. I consciously refrain from wearing any ideological blinkers. This column neither endorses nor repudiates any argument of any hue as it celebrates the plurality of ideas and voices.

 

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readerseditor@thehindu.co.in

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Printable version | Feb 22, 2020 10:53:25 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/Readers-Editor/an-open-and-shut-case/article19199490.ece

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