July 16, 2013

Something about sloppy journalijam

When it comes to the highest standards of journalism, The Hindu doesn't spare even itself. P Sainath's followers must surely be remembering his brilliant criticism of Times of India over the latter's news-cum-advertisement about the company selling Bt Cotton seeds. The Hindu Readers' Editor AS Panneerselvan is being just as intolerant in his columns about his paper's sometimes shoddy approach.

His comments in today's 'Corrections & Clarifications' section made me get up and write this. Totally worth a read:
"A note from the Readers' Editor: On July 11, 2013 there was a report in the Vijayawada edition titled 'Promoting girl child rights' that failed to meet the basic journalistic principles. An insensitive quote was attributed to 'Ms. Carol Fifon,' founder of Care and Share Trust because the reporter did not cover the event, and used a third party source to file the story. There was no attempt to check with a second source. This was very unprofessional behaviour on the part of the reporter, and the Editor expresses his regret to Ms. Carol Faison (even her name was misspelt in the report) for any damage the article would have caused her. I consider this a failure of both the reporter in particular, and the Vijayawada bureau in general." (sic)

Glad and relieved that the paper does not hesitate to acknowledge its mistake and offers no excuse. This inspires faith that principles of journalism matter to this institution. The Readers' Editor has, rightly, indicted not just the lazy, insincere reporter, but also the unsuspecting bureau for carrying the story as it is. My editor once told me that we (sub-editors) don't have to second guess the reporters all the time. But we need to, given how low they are stooping. We need to cross-check every spelling, every fact, every factoid. Need to. Or else we run the risk of looking like idiots. Sub-editor are the gatekeepers of the news. We need to know how to separate true from false. For this, we need to question the reporter. And this is where things might get dirty.

Dirty? (Before I proceed, I assert that I'm talking about the bad apples, aka pseudo-reporters-cum-stenographers. By God's grace, sincere reporters too exist.) I personally know reporters who have a reputation of not attending events. They either file a story on the basis of press release sent to them, or they ask their fellow reporters in other papers to pass on the information to them. Change the wording, send it across. No one would know. Live happily ever after. Well, just a matter of time before you end up being guilty of something as big as the error made by The Hindu reporter, who must have got it nicely from his/her superiors.

Ideally, reporters should be sincere and honest. But—as my journalism college's vice-dean would often say—we don't live in an ideal world. Reporters (again, not all, but many) are failing us, which is why we need to be extra cautious and approach each story with suspicion. Sub-editors should have the confidence to question the reporter and tell them what seems wrong when it seems wrong.

I have worked only in two newspapers and neither place had the culture of promoting interaction (and harmony) between the two departments. Desk and reporting is like Tom and Jerry. Even at best, a cold war is always there. Both sides look down upon each other. (Disclaimer: This doesn't apply to all the people, but most people. I've had a reporter abusing me, throwing a fit when I removed byline from a single-source story and told him/her, upon being asked, that such stories lack credibility.)

When a sub-editor gets a gobbledygook story from a reporter who has given him a piece of her mind earlier, the sub-editor concerned chooses not to be a concerned sub-editor for the sake of the peace of his mind. He doesn't seek clarification from the reporter, goes by the dictum of 'when in doubt, leave it out', and maybe that's how we lose on what the reporter thought was crucial to the story. This is how mistakes too happen. This is why The Hindu Readers' Editor has blamed the Vijayawada bureau too for carrying the story.

Anonymous sources
Another vice of reporters that the desk has come to accept is anonymous sources. I just loved the way Mr Panneerselvan disapproved of this "notorious practice" in his July 1 column. Allow me to quote a few lines from the piece: "...many journalists do not recognise that it undermines their own standing." "...a diligent reporter would have strived to find an attributable source even five years ago." "...anonymous sources are an easy way for rather lazy journalism."

I get sooo many stories that have a single source and even that person is not identified. I vividly remember that when we were learning the tricks of the trade in our journalism college, our professors just did not accept any story with anonymous or a single source. We would give excuses, justifications about why the source wouldn't speak, doesn't want to be identified and blah. Our teachers won't have any of it. They would sit on our head until we got that quote, with the name and designation of the person concerned. And it just so happened that most of the time we got someone in the thick of things to speak. You work hard, you'll get that quote. Period.

Journalists today, whether they are on desk or on the field, need to be more diligent. Journalism students learn about the platinum standards of the profession in their college, and then look at newspapers and say: "These national dailies are doing the kind of stuff our teachers say is anathema. The papers must be right, maybe our teachers are being pedantic, unnecessarily fussy." It will be sad if newspapers' 'chalta hai' approach becomes an excuse for aspiring journalists to relax their standards. Newspapers were supposed to be the benchmark, right?


“Accuracy is to a newspaper what virtue is to a lady, but a newspaper can always print a retraction.” —Adlai E Stevenson

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