Readers' Editor

The adjective filter

A.S. Panneerselvan. Photo: S.R. Raghunathan   | Photo Credit: SRR

One of the most difficult tasks before a reporter is to ruthlessly separate news and opinion. The editorial code of this paper says that “ The Hindu shall, as a rule, maintain a clear distinction between news, critical analysis, and opinion in its editorial content and shall not editorialise or opinionate in news reports.” How then can one explain the frequent breaching of this rule? The latest example is the Page 1 story on Saturday (Sept. 28, 2013), ‘Rahul blitz makes party see new light’. Can we take comfort in the fact that compared to others there are fewer transgressions in this paper?

Greek mythologies used the grand seer Tiresias to answer tricky questions. Tiresias was both a man and a woman, had an existence that was literally suspended between being a mortal and an immortal as he had seven lives. He was able to see the future because he was blind. By constructing his persona in a very fluid manner, where multiple identities coalesce and differ at various times, the mythologies managed to give him an insight that was drawn both from his wisdom and personal experience. T.S. Eliot understood this possibility and made Tiresias the narrator of his masterpiece The Wasteland. I wish I had the multiple identities of Tiresias to look at this issue from various viewpoints. Nonetheless, let me try to find an answer.

For many reporters, journalism is not merely a careerist pursuit. They believe that media is a site for democratic mediation of ideas. No journalistic discourse can be totally free from ideas and political orientations.

In this context, a neutral, distant, sanitised media becomes an elusive goal. But, it does not give room for distorting facts or creating myths. The sacrosanct line that divides news and views must be fully respected even to take forward a viewpoint or an ideological argument to its logical fruition. I have argued elsewhere that anyone who wants a space in public sphere comes in with a worldview and does not operate in vacuum. Here the argument gets its gravitas by a rigorous process of refining, redefining and enriching based on empirical data and sharpened intellectual input. The reportage in the newspaper should be rich in empiricism to enable a cutting edge analysis.

Principle and practice

The principles are clear, yet practice becomes problematic because of myriad reasons. The primary reason is that reporters are wont to providing the colour, the emotions, and the possible trajectories an event may take. It is this desire to give the full picture that often forces reporters to resort to adjectives — a grammatical device that converts news into views. Many years ago, William Safire wrote that the adjective is the mortal enemy of the noun and it would be prudent to write lean and mean. There is a need to fully decipher, inculcate and practise this advice.

I had been both a reporter and an editor. As a reporter, I did not show much restraint in the use of adjectives. But, the published reports were shorn of these qualifiers. My editors exercised caution. I was told repeatedly to let the facts speak for themselves. Why ‘gruelling poverty’ and why not just ‘poverty’? Why ‘devious ploy’ and why not ‘ploy’? I was told that adjectives were a dumbing down exercise that failed to respect the interpretative qualities in readers. The desire to express everything you saw, heard and experienced cannot alter the rules of good reporting. As an editor, I absorbed the advice and started deploying an important editorial device called adjective filter.

The adjective filter helps the news to emerge from the emotional cauldron of the on-field experience without being judgemental. It is rather difficult not to be judgemental, especially, if one is reporting on human tragedies like forced migration or deprivation. But, permitting one’s emotions to colour a copy has an opposite effect. It undermines the other important sections of the newspaper — the editorial and the opinion pages. If the report is going to be an evaluation of a developing story, then the editorial and the opinion gets reduced to the status of an addendum.

Now, let us look at some of the phrases used in the story that triggered this column: ‘Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi’s intemperate criticism of the government’, ‘the clumsiness of the attack sending confused signals’, ‘With this outburst’, ‘nothing could have been more embarrassing than the Congress vice president’s bombshell’, and ‘he made a dramatic exit’. These adjectives in the news report have virtually made the editorial look tame. If a reporter is overwhelmed by what she is covering, it becomes the duty of the desk to subject the copy to the adjective filter in order to restore the dividing line between news and views.


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Printable version | Oct 21, 2021 5:10:50 AM |

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