The story behind a story

In 2008, when journalist Aidan White wrote To Tell You the Truth: The Ethical Journalism Initiative, there was no social media. At the time, the first step towards building public trust in journalism was by developing and implementing ethical standards. “When media act ethically and have systems in place for monitoring their journalism, admitting their mistakes and explaining themselves to the public they create loyalty and attachment,” he wrote.

However, now, with the spread of social media and the growth of a new information disorder, journalists need to do this and much more to explain their craft and role. When I read some of the criticisms on social media against major American newspapers such as The New York Times and The Washington Post, I realise that Indian mainstream print media, including The Hindu, is facing a similar assault.

Some of the charges are that the coverage is too biased, that the media is too liberal, that it is too critical of the ruling dispensation, that it suffers from internal censorship, and that it spreads negativity. The principles of journalism inform the process of including or rejecting stories in a newspaper. Short-lived WhatsApp forwards and social media rants do not decide the content of political coverage. The New York Times Politics Editor, Patrick Healy, has come up with an idea to address some of these concerns. In a personal Twitter project, he tries to explain his newspaper’s decision-making process for its readers.

Explaining the context and the intent

Last week, Mr. Healy told the Neiman Lab’s Laura Hazard Owen that he wanted “to start engaging with readers about our intentions behind our stories,” in the hope that more transparency — about why stories are chosen, why they’re framed a certain way, and what kinds of conversations go on between reporters and editors behind the scenes — can shore up trust in the Times. He does a Twitter thread for any major political story that he thinks would benefit by having its context and clarity about intent explained, “and also when I think I can provide some behind-the-scenes insight or illumination that readers might like.” He ends each one with his email address, asking readers to write to him with comments and feedback.

The thread that got the most engagement was about Iowa Congressman Steve King’s influence over President Donald Trump. In it, Mr. Healy explained why the Times was giving a racist a platform. He tweeted: “We just published a story looking at Congressman Steve King and his influence on Trump and the border wall debate. King is a sitting member of Congress who has used racist language and been denounced as a white supremacist by his own party. Sunlight is the best disinfectant for views like King’s. We examined King’s comments — he promotes neo-Nazis on Twitter, he has spoken to far-right publications about migration and the ‘Great Replacement’ conspiracy theory, he has demeaned and vilified immigrants and Latinos.” Though the Congressman denied that he is a racist, the Times story had an impact: Mr. King lost his committee seats, the House overwhelmingly passed a resolution condemning white supremacy, and multiple Iowa newspapers called for his resignation.

The importance of media literacy

I often come across wild speculations about The Hindu’s political coverage. In the run-up to the general election, the polarised environment should not undermine the space for independent news and analysis. One part of the Terms of Reference for the Readers’ Editor talks about the need “to strengthen bonds between the newspaper and its millions of print platform and online readers”. Scholars have pointed out the reinforcing nature of online networks and echo chambers. At a fundamental level, media literacy makes the reader a participant in the world of information rather than being a passive recipient.

In this context, this column will explain at least one political story a month, till the general election is over, about how The Hindu covered it. It will have inputs both from our reporters and editors and explain the factors that compelled the newspaper to take up the story and follow it up.

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Printable version | Nov 29, 2020 8:19:21 PM |

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