Happy Birthday Readers Editor

BY B.P. Sanjay| IN Media Practice | 07/03/2007
The relatively short-lived experience of the Times of India in having an ombudsman has given way to a functioning RE in the Hindu.

B.P. Sanjay

It is one year since the Readers¿ Editor (RE) was appointed with much institutional   fanfare by The Hindu. The Guardian model on the basis of which the paper decided to have a RE and whether he should have been an outsider, etc. have been addressed by the media in the past including the Hoot.[i]

The recent RE¿s regular weekly column in the newspaper was a reflection of his experience. Calling for a realistic assessment, the visible framework in place for improving standards was explained. A frank revelation was also made: ?Some readers have the wrong perception that the Readers` Editor can bring in changes in editorial policy or news coverage. I cannot tell ? or wish to tell ? the editors and correspondents what to write or not write, or what to report or not report. Nor is it possible to agree with all that readers say, for each one has his or her own perceptions of journalistic norms and ethics. Many expect the paper to be moored in the old practices, while the world is changing rapidly.?[ii]

It included statistics as well. It may be recalled that an analysis of the functioning of the RE was made in the Hoot[iii] till September 2006 (first six months of the functioning). In a year the RE has received 10969 communications. At a claimed readership of 4 million this works out to about 0.27 % of the readers. Statistically this may not be significant but 10,000 readers wanting to write to the RE is noteworthy.  The newspaper has ensured a high degree of responsiveness. About   40% of the communications necessitated editorial and other kinds of follow up. The manifest response by way of corrections and clarifications was about 10 % and was published five days in a week. The newspaper feels that the readers¿ passion for accuracy as amazing.

In contrast the RE of the Guardian receives about 18,000 complaints[iv]. Topics pertain to interviews with intellectuals and revelations about life in prison etc. Usual complaints about usage, accuracy and graphics are there. Many complaints are about terminology-¿terrorist/freedom fighter¿ ¿arrest/adduct¿ especially with relevance to coverage of the Middle East. Alan Rusbridger[v] the editor of the Guardian while referring to the RE mentions that Ian Mayes the present RE has also dealt with ?declarations, or conflicts, of interest, plagiarism, manipulation of pictures and a host of other worries.? About uncomfortable issues although his first instinct was ?why are washing this dirty laundry in public?? he subsequently realized that ?Thank God we made a clean breast of that.? 

Although, the RE of the Hindu clearly distances himself from the editorial policies, for the relatively high standards The Hindu has, the paper could as well imbibe the Guardian model completely. While recalling the famous line from  CP Scott¿s essay on journalism,  which includes the famous sentence ?comment being free and facts being sacred? its editor  goes on to explain the relationship between business angle and editorial policy.  ?It is a mistake to suppose that the business side of a paper should dominate, as sometimes happens, not without distressing consequences. A newspaper, to be of value, should be a unity, and every part of it should equally understand and respond to the purposes and ideals which animate it. Between its two sides there should be a happy marriage, and editor and business manager should march hand in hand, the first, be it well understood, just an inch or two in advance.?[vi]

The relatively short-lived experience of the Times of India in having an Ombudsman has given way to a functioning RE in the Hindu. Critique apart, the newspaper has taken the institution seriously including for example responding to the barrage of criticism pertaining to coverage of Kanshi Ram¿s death. The RE will now comment every fortnight rather than weekly. Communications have dropped in the second half of the year and it has perhaps more to do with readers¿ apathy or fatigue? A newspaper that prides itself in imbibing good practices from other standard newspapers needs to be congratulated. Happy birthday RE.


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