It has been a glorious decade-long journey of dialogue, mutual learning, accountability and sharing of ideas. The Organisation of News ombudsmen, of which I am a board member, lists five key roles for a news ombudsman: to improve the quality of news reporting by monitoring accuracy, fairness and balance; to help the news provider become more accessible and accountable to readers and, thus, become more credible; to increase the awareness of news professionals about the public’s concerns; to save time for publishers and senior editors, or broadcasters and news directors, by channelling complaints and other inquiries to one responsible individual; and to resolve some complaints that might otherwise be sent to attorneys and become costly lawsuits. May I request the readers to share their assessment of how this office performed over the last ten years.
Response of the editorial team
Srinivasan Ramani, Deputy National Editor, explained how a system has been created for the opinion pages to fix responsibility for the mistakes committed. He said: “We adopted a collective responsibility for the mistakes committed as our system entailed the following steps: copy to be edited by the editing team member; copy run through the author to ensure that glaring changes were not made; copy vetted by the edit page editor; final look at headlines, blurbs, images, etc., by the National Editor or the Deputy National Editor.”
Ramya Kannan, Chief of Bureau, Tamil Nadu, was of the opinion that the Office of the Readers’ Editor has provided a structured format for everyone to write error-free copy and ensure that it happens. For her, the culture within The Hindu to acknowledge the errors made and ensure that clarifications are provided, unlike other papers that sweep the errors under the carpet and pretend that nothing matters, is an incentive for accurate reporting. Science Editor R. Prasad felt the feedback mechanism has helped sharpen Science and Technology reportage. He said: “Despite best efforts and verbatim reporting, a message can get wrongly conveyed mainly due to communication gap. Scientists are not the best communicators, even when the topic discussed pertains to their work. The best way to avoid mistakes is when the original research work published in a journal is available with the reporter.”
Deputy Editor Narayan Lakshman wanted the Office of the Readers’ Editor to explain the crucial difference between the reporter’s or the newspaper’s views, and those of the originator of the quote. He said: “For reportage that relies on quotes, readers should be aware that the reporter does not necessarily support what the originator of the quote said. While in most cases a reporter will only use quotes in their story that are deemed to be factually accurate, sometimes an inaccuracy or polarising view may be reflected in such quotes.”
Mandira Moddie, Deputy Internet Editor (Operations), wanted this office to explain the difference between an online newsroom and the legacy newsroom. “We have to balance speed with accuracy and we work with a very small team… The needs and compulsions of an online newsroom are very different from print. For example, we have an ongoing issue with regard to comments. The more comments are published, reflecting every shade of opinion, the more it draws an online audience to read that article. But often, because of the quality of the public discourse now, we have to stop publication of a lot of comments. For some readers this is censorship.”
Murali Krishnaswamy, Senior Assistant Editor, Edit Pages, noticed how the corrections and clarifications (C&C) have helped cut down deeply embarrassing instances of plagiarism — something that the desk has learnt the hard way — and uphold the importance of original content. He recalled how the readers’ interventions have been refresher courses. Murali, who was earlier with the Office of the Readers’ Editor, also drew our attention to how enterprising reporters take a cue for stories from the C&C. Vani Doraisamy’s story, “State to get one more Project Tiger reserve”, was a follow-up to an item mentioned in the C&C column.
Accountability across editions The crucial point is that the question of accountability is not restricted to the parent edition but is a norm across all editions of this newspaper. Sachin Kalbag, Resident Editor, Mumbai, explained the detailed gatekeeping process that governs news production in the newest edition of this newspaper. “In the case of the Mumbai edition, there have been some facilitating factors, viz., some of the newsroom colleagues have worked at The Hindu for a while, and they have contributed to the stability of the language style,” he said.
National Editor Suresh Nambath observed that reporters and desk persons are now more conscious of the mistakes made in the paper, and the importance of avoiding them. “Each reporter or desk person is sent the request for correction or clarification, and the head of department is aware of the correction being made. Especially, in the desk, the cover of anonymity that existed earlier for a subeditor is now gone with an explanation sought by the head of department for any mistake made,” said Nambath.
Newsgathering and news dissemination may appear to be mysterious and some readers may suspect the process itself. The Office of the Readers’ Editor tries to minimise the distance between the readers and the newspaper by not only responding to the readers’ queries but also explaining the sensitivity and alertness of the editorial team to the concerns of the reader. If this office has fostered trust over the last decade, it has delivered on its mandate.