Reporter fails to follow the cardinal rules of journalism:acts of verification and attribution

October 09, 2017 11:53 PM

A.S. Panneerselvan* 

It requires the skill of Kazuo Ishiguro to explain the emotions of the senior editors of this newspaper when they realised that the report, “Dying woman molested, video shows” (October 1, Mumbai edition), was based on a completely wrong reading. It is a monumental reminder to reporters and desks to never suspend due diligence at any moment in journalism.

How a false narrative was created

To understand this journalistic failure, one has to look at the entire sequence of events. A freelancer gets a provocative video of less than 10 seconds with a note suggesting molestation of a dying woman caught in a stampede. The outrage caused by the clip did blind the reporter from following the cardinal rules of journalism: the acts of verification and attribution. No attempt was made to reach out to the person who sent the WhatsApp forward to check its authenticity, the situation in which the video was taken, who shot it. The reporter failed in her primary duty of verification and filed the report based on her misreading of the clip. Some argued that the longer version of the clip clearly establishes that the man was trying to help the woman. But the fact remains that the short clip itself did not indicate any deducible malfeasance. This fundamental mistake led to the creation of a false narrative.

A 400-word wrong report in a local page on that day diverted the attention from the rest of the 250,000 words of quality journalism. Journalistic failure ruthlessly extracts a price.

The American Press Institute shared a warning by the editor and newspaper executive, Jack Fuller: “Journalists need to show modesty in their judgment about what they know and how they know it.” The reach of social media is not an unmixed blessing. The difference between cyber traffic and truth is what makes journalism unique and trustworthy. Alert desks not only deduct errors, inaccuracies, and inconsistencies, but also pose the right questions to reporters to get the facts. Unfortunately, no questions seem to have gone to the reporter from the Mumbai desk, which processed this report.

When I discussed the false molestation story with the Editor, Mukund Padmanabhan, he was appalled by the total failure of editorial supervision. He did the right thing as Editor. He took responsibility for this terrible lapse and apologised unreservedly for it, removed the story from the Web, and provided a link to the original URL that took any reader to his apology. He instructed the Web team to actively promote the apology from the newspaper’s social media handle. He held a series of in-house meetings to put in place a system for vetting all sensitive stories published in the regional pages of this newspaper.

Shifting goalpost

In the normal course, all this would have meant a closure for a journalistic mistake. But in this new age of social media, the goalpost was constantly shifting. Some felt that the apology was not enough; some demanded punitive action against the concerned reporter and the editors; some indulged in semantic quibbling: the headline said apology, while the body text read regret. “Did your editor apologise or did he express regret?” On the other end of the spectrum, there were readers who were upset over the vitriol in cyberspace. They wondered whether those who target The Hindu are real readers or some algorithm-driven bots. They wanted to pose two counter-questions: is there any news outlet that can honestly say that it has never ever erred in its judgment? And can the attackers name any other media organisation in India that has a visible mending process?

Mr. Padmanabhan explained this newspaper’s governing value system: “I would only like to clarify, given the extent of the trolling and the nature of the hate mails, that this was an honest mistake, even if it was an extremely grave and inexcusable one. Those who have suggested that this apology was a result of pressure from the social media or from other quarters have not understood the ethos of this newspaper. We have a tradition of owning up for our lapses and correcting them.”

The Sunday edition of this newspaper gives much more reading material than any other day. A 400-word wrong report in a local page on that day diverted the attention from the rest of the 250,000 words of quality journalism. Journalistic failure ruthlessly extracts a price. (From The Hindu)

*A.S. Panneerselvan is Readers' Editor, The Hindu

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