The readers' editor: an ignored element of self-regulation

BY Sumana Ramanan| IN Media Practice | 01/12/2014
Under certain conditions, a readers' editor can bring greater transparency and accountability to a news organisation, qualities that the media constantly demands of other democratic institutions.
SUMANA RAMANAN talks of her experience (Pix: Ramanan~s readers~ editor column in HT).

Over the past few years, Indian media organisations have come under increasing criticism for not being transparent and accountable even though they demand these qualities from every other democratic institution, namely the legislature, executive and judiciary.  

Some of this criticism has been spurred by revelations about specific media organisations indulging in downright corrupt practices, such as paid news, a practice in which these outlets take money in exchange for favourable coverage. But the public's revulsion has also been evoked by less blatant instances of unethical and unprofessional journalism, such as blanking out news because of vested interests or sensationalising and overplaying crime stories that have little public interest (which is distinct from something that merely interests the public). The criticism has been directed at both the electronic media and the press, but this article's focus is on print publications.

Some experts have argued that the way to make the press more accountable and transparent is to regulate it through an independent body with teeth. This means that this body should be able to enforce its decisions and impose punitive fines. But the only organisation in this country that has oversight of the press, namely the Press Council of India, cannot now do this. The Press Council of India is chaired by a retired judge of the Supreme Court; and of its 28 other members, eight are from outside the press. This body can only admonish or censure a news outlet. It may also direct the publication to print a clarification or apology, but it cannot do anything if its directive is ignored. 

Senior journalists and editors of leading print organisations, such as Shekhar Gupta, the former longstanding editor-in-chief of the Indian Express, and N. Ram, former editor-in-chief of The Hindu and current chairman of the newspaper's holding company, Kasturi & Sons, have responded to such suggestions by saying that the answer to perceptions, justified or otherwise, of unethical and corrupt practices in the print media, was not outside regulation but self-regulation. 

This stance, however, raises many more questions about the form this self-regulation should take. In response, some people have suggested that the Press Council India be reconstituted so that it has punitive powers and only those from within the press be made members of its adjudicating body. But the discussions have been inconclusive and the status quo continues.

In all these discussions, news organisations have not paid enough attention to the institution of the readers' editor as a potentially important and effective element in a larger framework of self-regulation. An exception is The Hindu, which, as far as I know, is the only print publication in India with such a position, which it instituted in 2006. 

A readers' editor is a senior journalist who acts as a bridge between readers and the publication's journalists. First, this person undertakes the basic task of issuing regular corrections of errors as well as clarifications of any ambiguities that may have appeared in the publication's articles, which may have been pointed out either by readers or the journalists themselves.  

This task addresses a journalist's fundamental duty to get the facts right. This may also include corrections related to language and grammar. Second, the readers' editor examines, evaluates and then comes to conclusions about issues relating to coverage that readers may bring up. Here, the readers' editor must make judgements about the mix of coverage, namely what should or should not be written, and about the quality and quantity of what has been covered, going beyond questions of mere accurateness to issues of fairness, balance, nuance, etc., spanning the entire gamut of journalistic judgement and values. 


Necessary conditions


A readers' editor, however, can be fully effective only under certain conditions. I make this claim from my own experience as well as those of other readers' editors. I was the readers' editor of theHindustan Times' Mumbai edition for slightly more than four years, from October 2008 to January 2013, and was briefly on the board of the international Organization of News Ombudsmen. 

First, this person must be independent from the editor, namely the person who is ultimately responsible for everything that is printed, because the readers' editor's task is to act as an appraiser of the coverage, and he or she can carry out this mission only if he or she is independent from the person responsible for the coverage. 

Ideally, this independence must be structural, not merely in the form of a verbal or written guarantee from the editor. In other words, this person should be appointed not by the editor but by the proprietor, the board or the trustees, depending upon the publication's ownership structure. As a consequence, this means that the readers' editor will report not to the editor but to one of these entities. Therefore, he or she will fulfil his or her tasks in parallel to the editor.  

At the same time, the readers' editor must have access to the editorial staff because he or she will regularly have to ask individual journalists, including the editor, for their views about readers' comments on their articles. This access must again be guaranteed by the person or body who appoints the readers' editor.

Second, the readers' editor should not have a role in determining coverage in the newspaper because this will lead to a conflict of interest. After all, if the readers' editor is to take an independent decision about matters of coverage, he or she cannot also have been a party to it. Ideally, this person ought to be someone who has been a journalist for at least a decade, so that he or she has the experience needed to evaluate readers' opinions about coverage and also has the respect of the journalists whose work will come under scrutiny. 

One option is to give this position to a journalist who has recently retired because this person will be aware of the contemporary scenario and his or her opinions will more likely be grounded in the current realities of a newsroom and the larger journalistic landscape. This journalist can even have retired from the same organisation. It is only important that he or she have no role in influencing current coverage.  

Third, the newspaper must dedicate space for readers' letters about coverage, as opposed to their opinions about current topics and other matters. It must also have a prominent, dedicated and independent forum in which the readers' editor can regularly express his or her views about issues that readers' raise. This typically takes the form of a regular column, with the person's contact numbers and email ID. Whatever the readers' editor writes must appear without any changes, which must be guaranteed not by the editor but by the authority who appointed the readers' editor. 

A forum is effective because the readers' editor will often have to take positions that are critical of the newspaper, and if this is done in front of the publication's readership, it puts pressure on the organisation to improve quality in a way that a private post-mortem will not. Moreover, it gives a strong signal to readers that it is transparent. 

These three conditions put pressure on the readers' editor to take an independent stand. This is because he or she will come under pressure from both the appointing authority and from readers. First, because the proprietor or board or trustees has appointed this person to be a watchdog, they will obviously evaluate whether this person is effectively fulfilling this role. Second, if the readers' editor must make his or her opinions about coverage public in a regular column, then readers, including journalists from other organisations, will be able to judge for themselves how objective and independent this person is. 


Readers' editors on the ground


Having said this, these conditions are not always entirely necessary or sufficient for readers' editors to be effective. Ultimately, their effectiveness depends on the individuals and the culture of the newsroom. The experience of readers' editors in the UK's The Observer and India's The Hindu highlight some of these issues. 

In the UK's The Guardian, for instance, which instituted a readers' editor 18 years ago, all three of the conditions I outlined hold true. The newspaper is owned by the Scott Trust, which appoints the readers' editor. This person also does not have a role in determining coverage and has a dedicated forum in which to express his or her opinions. The Guardian's sister publication, its weekend newspaper, The Observer, however, has a slightly different arrangement. Because it is a weekly publication, the management found it hard to justify hiring a full-time readers' editor. As a result, when it created the post three years after The Guardian, it made it a part-time job.  

The Observer's readers' editor, Stephen Pritchard, was appointed not by the trust but by the editor and combines his readers' editor duties with other tasks, such as helping with design work and writing about Western classical music. But these tasks do not involve influencing news coverage itself, so do not lead to a conflict of interest.  

"I am very careful not to get involved in decision-making about the content of the newspaper because that would compromise me should I need to investigate complaints about things that I might be involved in," said Pritchard, who has been president of the global Organization of News Ombudsmen for two terms, in a Skype interview. "So I write about pretty anodyne things like classical music, and I do some design work because I have a long history of newspaper design."

Pritchard is a long-time employee of The Observer and was the production editor before becoming readers' editor. Although Pritchard is not structurally independent from the editor, in the way that I outlined above and the way his counterpart in The Guardian is, there is a tacit understanding in the newsroom that he is independent of the management structure when he functions as the readers' editor.  

"I am allowed to write what I like, and to correct what I feel needs to be corrected and to write columns on things that readers are concerned about," he said. "I have worked in this system for two editors and neither of them has ever interfered with what I do. So there is a general goodwill towards the idea because there is a recognition within the office that we need to be more open and transparent with our readers if we're to maintain some credibility with them, and the role of the readers' editor...does help in the whole business of media's difficulty with credibility, certainly here in the West."

I asked Pritchard whether working in the newsroom and reporting to the editor had hampered his independence. "It isn't a perfect system," he said. "I don't think anyone will pretend it's perfect. There will be times when I feel particularly uncomfortable, and I have to be strong in order to maintain a line. I'm sure there have been occasions when I could have been stricter in my criticism. But we have to bear in mind that in Britain, there are only two readers' editors working, in The Guardian and The Observer. The British press has a very long tradition of being very defensive and not being open to criticism and it is going to take a long time to turn that around despite the fact that we had a...two-year public inquiry into the practices of the British press, which...has done an enormous amount of damage to [its] credibility in the eyes of any readers. Now we see readers turning to different sources for their news, and editors and managements who ignore the voice of their consumers are in danger of damaging their businesses. There is a business case for transparency. There is a business case for accountability." 

In India, The Hindu, drew from The Guardian's experience, while instituting its readers' editor’s position. All three conditions outlined above hold true for the current readers' editor: he is appointed by the board, has no other role in the newspaper and has a dedicated space in the newspaper for corrections and his column.   

But while the conditions hold true, it differs crucially from the situation in The Guardian. WhileThe Hindu's readers' editor was appointed by the board, some of its members are also now editors, which was not the case when the current readers' editor was appointed in 2012. At that time, the newspaper's editor Siddharth Varadarajan was the first professional editor in the newspaper's history. This meant that the appointing authority, the editor and the readers' editor were all distinct, which is the ideal situation. 

Two years later, however, the proprietors took editorial control of the newspaper once again, with N. Ravi becoming the editor-in chief and Malini Parthasarathy becoming the editor. In this case, the newspaper's proprietors themselves are editors, which means that the readers' editor cannot be said to be structurally independent. The only way to prevent this is to say that proprietors should not play an editorial role, which may be too harsh a condition. However, as in the case of The Observer, not having a perfect set-up need not hamper the readers' editor's effectiveness because this also depends on the two individuals concerned - how serious the editor is about giving the readers' editor independence and the extent to which the readers' editor exercises this independence.

"So far, I have faced no pressures," said The Hindu's readers' editor A.S. Pannerselvan, the third person to hold this post in the newspaper, in a Skype interview. "I have to say that neither Siddharth nor Ravi (editor-in-chief) or Malini (editor) ever asked, 'Why have you taken up a particular issue?'" 

One can always argue that a reader's editor should have been more critical in this or that instance, but my aim here is not to judge how effective these readers' editors have been in practice or whether they have fully utilised the independence they say they have been given, but to provide live examples of the conditions under which readers' editors function.


Next page: My experience


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