One of the main functions of a newspaper ombudsman is to address the concerns of readers. The key to doing this is patience, humility and the willingness to listen
It has been a 12-year-long journey of mutual learning, accountability and sharing of ideas. The Hindu did not create the Office of the Readers’ Editor as a response to a crisis of credibility as in the case of The New York Times (NYT). At the turn of this century, the NYT was forced to act to restore trust following some major journalistic failures. Jayson Blair, a staff reporter, fabricated comments, concocted scenes and lifted material from other newspapers and wire services. He was asked to resign and the paper had to publicly acknowledge the deception indulged in by one of its staff. It also forced the resignation of the then Executive Editor, Howell Raines. To restore trust and confidence in the paper, the new Executive Editor, Bill Keller, recruited Daniel Okrent as its Public Editor.
An announcement on the setting up of the office of the Readers’ Editor in 2006.
As I have mentioned at most of the Open House events hosted by this office, The Hindu was inspired to institute a Readers’ Editor in 2006 by the exemplary practice and experience of The Guardian, U.K. It was the newspaper’s commitment to uphold its reputation as a newspaper of record and to create a mechanism that ensures accountability to readers and accuracy in news while preserving plurality in views. What is the exact role of a Readers’ Editor in a newspaper? If he has no role in the editorial process, why is he called an editor? What is his contribution to the publication to retain trust and credibility?
The Organisation of News Ombudsmen (ONO) lists five key roles for a news ombudsman: to improve the quality of news reporting by monitoring accuracy, fairness and balance; to help the news provider become more accessible and accountable to readers and, thus, become more credible; to increase the awareness of news professionals about the public’s concerns; to save time for publishers and senior editors, or broadcasters and news directors, by channelling complaints and other inquiries to one responsible individual; and to resolve some complaints that might otherwise be sent to attorneys and become costly lawsuits.
Employees at The Hindu office in 1957.
News-gathering and news dissemination may appear to be mysterious, and some readers may suspect the process itself. The Office of the Readers’ Editor tries to minimise the distance between the readers and the newspaper by not only responding to the readers’ queries, but also explaining the sensitivity and alertness of the editorial team to the concerns of the reader. Apart from the Terms of Reference given by the publishing company of this newspaper and a checklist provided by the ONO, I retain one essential journalistic quality to address the concerns of the readers — listening.
“Listening needs the human skills of patience, humility, willingness to learn from others and to respect views and values which you may not share. As a listener, your sources are not dead documents or statistics, but living people and you have to be able to work together. And most importantly, listening to an individual acts as a counterpoint to generalisations and provides important touchstones against which to review the collective version,” points out a manual on oral testimony. This happens to be the bedrock of not just oral testimonies, but also of good, responsible journalism. Accountability can be established only by having a dedicated office that is capable of listening, fair examination of facts and acting in a fearless manner to effect visible mending.
Employees at The Hindu office in 1957. At right, technicians going through a printout at the computerised processing department
I listen to a range of voices and a multitude of opinions that constantly remind me of the complex, plural world in which we live. The fact that I am outside the editorial process gives room for reflection. The deadline pressure does not hurry me, and I have both the time and the space to take a considered view. Listening does not stop with me. It extends to the editorial team. Every communication from my office is listened to carefully, and the editorial team effects appropriate changes when necessary. For me, the endorsement of the “right to be heard” — both of the readers and the Readers’ Editor — by the entire team that constitutes this newspaper is the biggest compensation for missing the buzz of writing on key issues.
The office, in the course of 12 years, has become a site for dialogue amid the multiple concurrent monologues that dominate cyberspace.
A.S. Panneerselvan is the Readers’ Editor of The Hindu
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