The devil is in the detail

It is heartening that readers engage with some of the difficult and often contentious issues surrounding journalism and media freedom. While I sincerely thank those who have endorsed my views in my last column, ‘Tilting at windmills’ (September 21), some others wrote saying they see bias not in opinion pieces but in news reports and headlines published in this newspaper.

Providing context

S. Balasubramanian, a reader from Bengaluru, saw a clear bias in the way The Hindu reported the Supreme Court proceedings of the bail plea of activist and lawyer Sudha Bharadwaj. On September 25, The Hindu carried a report with the headline, ‘SC asks Sudha Bharadwaj to file bail plea on merits’. Mr. Balasubramanian compared it with the headline carried in some other news organisation: ‘Elgar case: SC junks Sudha Bharadwaj bail plea’. Mr. Balasubramanian said: “While the report in The Hindu may not be completely incorrect, one cannot but wonder if The Hindu report is short on facts. And the title only reflects the respective paper’s preferences. In an era where the credibility of news organisations is at an all-time low, The Hindu can’t afford to let its readers down.”

It is evident that The Hindu reported the proceedings of the Supreme Court in a fair manner. It is important to remember the observations of both judges who constituted the Bench — Justice U. U. Lalit and Justice Ajay Rastogi. Justice Lalit asked advocate Vrinda Grover, appearing for Ms. Bharadwaj: “Why is your client not applying for bail on merits?” Justice Rastogi asked: “You have such a good case on merits, why are you seeking bail on medical grounds?” Encouraged by these observations, Ms. Grover withdrew the bail plea on medical grounds. Contrary to Mr. Balasubramanian’s contention, The Hindu report was not only factually correct but also provided more facts. The report provided the necessary context without editorialising.

An interesting reaction to my column was on Twitter. A reader, C. Chitra, whose handle is ‘flying colours’ wrote: “Occasionally people will suggest that those of us concerned about the dogmas of our age are tilting at windmills. From British press, unconscious bias was ‘Something which so many people don’t understand’.” Of course, there is lot to learn from the British Press and its rich reflection on the vocation.

Role of the news ombudsman

It is crucial to realise that a news ombudsman uses journalistic yardsticks in evaluating complaints and is not swayed by external factors such as his or her political preference and social media campaigns. Like many young reporters, in my early days in journalism, due to daily deadline pressures, I hardly reflected on what constituted journalism. In 1998, Godfrey Hodgson, director of the Reuters’ Foundation Programme, welcomed me into the fellowship programme at the University of Oxford with a short monograph titled Prometheus Unbound: What the media can do with freedom. It was the Iain Walker Memorial Lecture delivered by Harold Evans a year earlier. And this sparked off my passion to learn about the various elements of journalism and the role of journalism in contributing to a better democratic public sphere.

Alan Rusbridger, former editor of The Guardian, in his obituary of Sir Harold Evans who died on September 23 in New York, pointed out some of his great qualities. He wrote: “He [Evans] could do it all. Write like a dream; design with impact; edit with flair; dash off the perfect headline; crop a picture; see off a writ. There was no one who knew more about the craft of journalism, nor anyone to match his passion for communicating that craft — documented in numerous textbooks that were, in turn, studied by generations of would-be journalists.” I use Evans’s books as texts for my students at the Asian College of Journalism.

But what I learnt from him as a news ombudsman is his expansive understanding of the crucial role of journalism. In his Iain Walker Memorial Lecture, Evans recollected a handwritten note framed on the wall of the Editor’s office of The Northern Echo. It was a letter from W.T. Stead accepting the editorship of the paper. The framed note read: “What a marvellous opportunity for attacking the devil!” He also pointed out that tabloid values suffuse the press in ways that are unthinkable, where complex stories are squeezed into ‘good guy’, ‘bad guy’ format. A news ombudsman is committed to keeping tabloidisation at bay.

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Printable version | Nov 25, 2020 11:22:45 PM |

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