From the Readers’ Editor | Readers' Editor

The importance of being the bearer of bad tidings

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Newspapers need to perform this vital, democratic role

When I sought readers’ responses about the impact of digitalisation, and what measures this newspaper should take to reach out to millions who access news through their hand-held devices, I had three sets of nagging questions which eluded answers on my mind. First, can legacy newspapers retain their original credo of remaining a ‘newspaper of record’ in an era where news is breaking every minute? Is it important to retain the idea of recording the present for the future or, in other words, of performing the role of being the first draft of history?

Second, when digital marketing ideas like targeting and distributing content, Search Engine Optimisation and framing tweets to trend a story have become major determinants, has the tried and tested inverted pyramid story structure that dominated the news industry become redundant? Do we need a new forms of structuring a story that reflects the relentless nature of the 24x7 news cycle?

Third, in a heavily polarised environment, where does a readers’ desire to get news end and where does the wish to have a confirmation bias begin? If closed encrypted platforms like WhatsApp attract more readers because of the lure of confirmation bias, what is the role of journalism whose primary objective is truth?

Giving print journalism its due

Vijay S. Raghavan, a reader from Navi Mumbai, came up with a 2,300 word response in which he touched upon a range of issues, including the spread of multiple print editions since liberalisation of the Indian economy, readers’ perception of bias, and why print must be given its due even today.

He argued for more print editions that have a good mix of local and national stories rather than national editions which, in his opinion, fail to offer substantial reading fare. I am not sure whether the present economic reality will permit this newspaper to implement all his suggestions but one seems to be an immediate possibility: bundling the subscription for e-paper and the Internet edition into one.

V.N. Mukundarajan from Thiruvananthapuram felt that the news industry was not nimble enough in the first two decades of the 21st century and it took time to understand the aspirations, preferences, attitudes and reading styles of the youth.

In his view, publications are trying to navigate two landscapes — the traditional print and the online. “No two worlds can be as different as these two. The nature of the medium dictates the format, content, and curation of news stories… The screen demands understanding visual cues. The appearance of the page is as important as its content. The print is conservative; the screen is liberal, especially in its comments section,” he wrote.

He wanted to newspapers to follow the ‘Carl Sagan Standard’ to weed out fake news. The well-known astronomer came up an aphorism, “ Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” (ECREE) and Mr. Mukundarajan felt that ECREE should not be restricted to science but test all claims.

Baloney Detection Kit

Let me share Carl Sagan’s “Baloney Detection Kit” which was succinctly summarised by the ever-engaging reader from Kerala.

The tools which he wants journalists to use in defence of truth and to deduct fake news are: “1) confirm the facts; 2) encourage debate; 3) remember that authorities can be wrong; 4) develop more than one idea. 5) try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it is yours; 6) quantify; 7) If there is a chain of argument, every link in the chain must work (including the premise), not just one of them; 8) Occam’s razor — a rule of thumb. When faced with two hypotheses that explain the data equally well, choose the simpler one; 9) Always ask whether the hypothesis can at least in principle, be falsified.”

The biggest challenge for a newspaper in a polarised environment is to create a public sphere where debate, doubt, argument and dissent lead to a more informed choices without being subjected to savage personal attack. While discernible vitriol flows from open sources, the quantitatively overwhelming maliciousness is generated in the encrypted messaging world. Is there an acceptable approach to deal with the encrypted world of toxic circulation without undermining the privacy of the individual? If a newspaper fails to be the bearer of impending bad tidings, who else will perform that democratic duty?

readerseditor@thehindu.co.in

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Printable version | Jan 29, 2020 12:54:16 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/Readers-Editor/the-importance-of-being-the-bearer-of-bad-tidings/article30426872.ece

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