The question of nuance

For years, I have referred to editorials in newspapers to explain a rather difficult word, perspicacity. The Oxford dictionary defines it as “the ability to understand somebody/something very quickly and accurately”. Etymologists trace the origin of this word to the Latin word perspicācitās, which means discernment. Perspicacity is the power to discern what is going on beneath the surface. Journalism has two fundamental roles: informing the public and making sense of what’s going on around us. While the role of reporters is to inform the public, the function of an editorial is to help readers make sense of myriad developments.

Many readers were taken aback by the editorial, “No comments” (June 1), on tennis star Naomi Osaka’s decision not to attend the post-match press conferences at the French Open, which is a contractual obligation for players. The editorial dealt exhaustively with the interactions between sports personalities and journalists in the age of social media. It read: “In a universe where athletes prefer social-media posts over media interactions, the official press-conference is the last remaining avenue for probing questions that elicit insightful answers. Player-journalist interactions are the only substitute for source-based inferences that colour the narrative. Closer home, M.S. Dhoni revealed his international retirement through Instagram and lapsed into silence.”

The challenges of mental health issues

The editorial acknowledged that some questions asked during post-match conferences are insensitive. This is vastly different from the multiple challenges posed by mental health issues.

One of the readers, Vasudevan, felt that the editorial was written before Ms. Osaka decided to quit the tournament. He wrote: “The editorial has jumped the gun by stating that Osaka ignored nuance, dished out a lame excuse and trivialised the serious issue of mental health. In hindsight, it is obvious that it is the editorial that has trivialised the serious issue of mental health by not taking cognisance of what a champion player like Osaka is going through. If one goes through her on-court interviews of the past, one would find that she never was comfortable, though the real reasons were never known. Instead of trying to understand the problem, as not all individuals are made equal, other Grand Slam tournament authorities also joined French Open authorities in warning an already vulnerable individual.”

I agree with Mr. Vasudevan. Editorials should exemplify perspicacity and in this context, Osaka’s subsequent statement makes the editorial seem churlish. She spoke of experiencing “huge waves of anxiety” before speaking to the media and said that she has “suffered long bouts of depression”. This needs empathetic listening. But having expressed my reservation about the editorial and flagging the concerns of readers, I must acknowledge that the opinion pages made quick amends.

A moment’s lapse of empathy

Preethi Ramamoorthy, who has covered Grand Slam tournaments, wrote a reflective article, “Asking the right questions” (June 3). She wrote: “There exists a larger question of what we expect from our sporting icons. Are we satisfied with them just doing their job — playing, winning — or do we want to get to know the person, the tactical genius, behind the champion? It takes a particular brand of mental fortitude to thrive in a punishing and lonely sport such as tennis. It is this trait that journalists most often want to probe and showcase.” She rightly pointed out that the ideal way to do this is through “long-winded, private chats”.

On the same day, the President of the Public Health Foundation of India, K. Srinath Reddy, wrote an article stressing on the need to look at the delicate subject of mental health more closely. He also documented the hypocrisy of sporting bodies. He wrote: “The French Tennis Federation did not cover itself in glory when it displayed an utter lack of empathy towards a vulnerable young woman who rose to the top of the game because of her immense talent and not because of her speaking abilities… To add irony and insult to injury, Gilles Moretton, the president of the French Tennis Federation, made a statement to the press about Osaka’s withdrawal and left without fielding questions. The incident lays bare deep hypocrisy.”

As an ombudsman, my special respect for sports journalism stems from the fact that it effortlessly straddles the two worlds of public interest and what the public is interested in. Even a moment’s lapse of empathy will derail this fine balance.

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Printable version | Jul 27, 2021 2:26:28 AM |

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