The headline of this column written on World Press Freedom Day draws from a fascinating book by Kathryn Schulz, Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error. The 2010 book has some excellent observations about the three stages of committing errors: why we make mistakes, why we don’t know we are making them, and what we do when recognition dawns.
COVID-19 has not reduced readers’ expectations of a responsible newspaper. When they see any infraction in journalistic principles or humanistic values, they respond within hours, even during this pandemic. A front-page report with a Ghaziabad dateline, “2 priests found dead on U.P. temple premises” (April 29), triggered responses from readers. They cited my earlier columns — “Cloak-and-dagger words” (December 18, 2017) and “Why context matters” (August 20, 2018) — while registering their protest against the report. The memory of cyberspace cannot match the memories of committed readers.
A criminal act, not a hate crime
An academic friend asked whether the report passed the test I had spelt out on the use of religious or caste identity. I had argued that in cases of excesses — be it lynching or expulsion from a public space — the journalistic team, which comprises reporters and the desk, gives due consideration to human dignity in reporting, editing and providing headlines: “Identities of victims are mentioned only when the victim’s dignity is trampled upon because of her identity. The team makes a fundamental difference between a crime and a crime that is driven by hate and bigotry.”
G. Selva, a reader from Kachaleeswarar Agraharam in Chennai, was taken aback by the fact that the report mentioned the caste of the suspect. He wrote: “[The report] does not only openly state the caste of the suspect but also identifies the suspect as a drug addict and thief. Therefore, it indirectly associates drug addiction and thievery with Scheduled Caste groups, in a society where Scheduled Castes are oppressed, excluded and stigmatised in everyday life. Moreover, this news also carries the picture of the suspect being [taken by the police] in his underwear.” News suggesting that a Scheduled Caste person is the suspect and was paraded half-naked is not only disturbing, but also has the potential to lead to further violence against Dalits, he said, allowing perpetrators to act with more impunity. Most readers in different ways said that direct identification of a suspect as belonging to a Scheduled Caste will only intensify stigmatisation.
The readers are right, and the newspaper was wrong in this instance. The U.P. crime cannot be treated as a hate crime. It is a mistake to identify a criminal act as a hate crime. The Editor had given specific instructions to the desk about the use of caste and religious identity in reports. But the slip-up happened and we can offer no excuses.
Not just the Readers’ Editor, but the Editor too sometimes has to suffer the Sisyphean burden of witnessing mistakes like these, about which he had already warned the desk. There are manuals, style books and value statements that guide a newsroom, and the popular belief is that these should ensure flawless copy that adheres to the highest standards. The former Managing Editor, P. Jacob, while updating The Hindu ’s in-house style book a couple of years ago, had remarked: “The style book should not be reduced to a rare reference book. It should be an essential part of the daily practice. Unless journalists internalise the features, the fear of slip-ups and mistakes looms large.”
A tricky subject
Handling caste in journalism is not an easy task. The desk must know when to name a community and when to refrain from doing so. This is not a form of self-censorship. One needs to understand the power of the caste hierarchy that perpetuates a dominance-dependency equation undermining our egalitarian imagination. Journalists must understand that their writing should uphold the dignity of people and not become a tool to humiliate them. Most importantly, one cannot permit the journalistic space to normalise any form of humiliation.
Apart from deadline pressures, a journalist sometimes tends to read what he assumed he wanted to say rather than what he had actually written. But a Readers’ Editor has not only the benefit of time but also the advantage of collective scrutiny of a text. Acknowledging and correcting a mistake is an essential element of ethical journalism.