From the readers’ editor Readers' Editor

Time to reflect

CHENNAI, 16/10/2014: A.S. Panneerselvan, The Hindu Readers' Editor. Photo: V.V.Krishnan  

In less than two months, my tenure as the Readers’ Editor will come to an end. After being a journalist for nearly four decades, which includes the past nine years as a news ombudsman, I am moving on to pursue research on a range of subjects that are close to my heart. I would like to use this interregnum to look at the changing nature of the news industry, and the challenges it poses to a news ombudsman. Along with my personal reflections, I would like to hear and share the views of the readers about how they assess this institution in general, and within The Hindu in particular.

First, we need to contextualise the role of a news ombudsman and how it is different from all other journalistic assignments. While every journalistic assignment goes on to create a body of public information, the evaluation by an ombudsman is clearly a post facto act.

Autopsies help to understand the factors that led to the death of an individual — which is a significant contribution. The role of an ombudsman is not only to identify what went wrong but also to work on a visible mending process. The idea of a visible mending process is to ensure that the society makes its choices based on right information rather than a faulty one.

‘Required revolution’

Joshua Benton, founder of the Nieman Lab at Harvard University, in his article “From public to publics” has argued that “a strong, proactive public editor can be part of this current reckoning in journalism that is looking increasingly like a required revolution in journalism culture”.

Over the course of next few weeks, I will also be touching upon some of the crucial questions about the role of a news ombudsman raised by Kathy English, who was Toronto Star’s public editor for thirteen long years and my fellow board member at the Organisation of News Ombudsmen and Standards Editor.

What is the need for this extended reflection and engagement? Is it an attempt to understand digital disruption? Is it an attempt to locate the elements of journalism within the changing contours of the news media industry? The answer is yes to all these questions and much more. I earnestly hope this extended engagement will deepen the compact between the newspaper and its readers.

Integral for self-regulation

A news ombudsman is an integral part of self-regulation for news media. According to a UNESCO framework, “Self-regulation is a combination of standards setting out the appropriate codes of behaviour for the media that are necessary to support freedom of expression, and process how those behaviours will be monitored or held to account.”

The framework further states that “self-regulation preserves independence of the media and protects it from partisan government interference. It could be more efficient as a system of regulation as the media understand their own environment better than government”. The framework also alerts citizens that this approach may be used by the news industry to further its “commercial interests rather than the public interest”.

While the Terms of Reference that govern this office give general guiding principles, individual Readers’ Editors evolve their own approach to effectively ensure that the newspaper does not stray from its core principles and editorial values. In my first column on September 24, 2012, I spelt out my approach: “The Terms of Reference defines my role and the Code of Editorial Values defines the role of the editorial team. Readers’ concerns, complaints and suggestions shall not be evaluated in an arbitrary fashion, but within a rigorous framework set out in these two documents, as they provide for an institutional framework for a mutual dialogue between The Hindu and its millions of readers. My job is to see that this dialogue takes place for mutual benefit.”

The fulcrum of my ombuds universe is a value system that is deeply embedded in the notion of the commons and common good, where the central concern is to effect course correction and not to be punitive.

I have both boundaries and possibilities, and I respect the prerogative of editorial freedom. The perimeter is set by the Terms of Reference and it would be unfair to breach this. Respecting the well-defined perimeter is an enabling quality as it opens up many avenues to look at the best practices of journalism. This debate is crucial to preserve public interest in journalism.

Our code of editorial values

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Printable version | Sep 19, 2021 10:13:52 PM |

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