Newswatch: Kalpana Sharma on the falling standards in newspapers

30 Nov,2011

By Kalpana Sharma


When the new chair of the Press Council of India, Justice Markandey Katju held forth on the competence, or rather incompetence and lack of learning of journalists, we were outraged. How dare a person from outside the media cast aspersions on our competence? Has he any idea how difficult it is to produce readable newspapers and magazines and watchable TV shows?


Yet what was considered inexcusable only a few decades ago now passes without anyone being hauled over the coals. By this I mean the bloomers one can find almost every day, particularly in print. On TV we now know that there probably are as many mistakes as in print. It took the former chair of the Press Council, Justice PB Sawant to catch one such “inadvertent” mistake and to ensure that it was never forgotten. But in print, the errors jump out at you every day – wrong photographs, captions, erroneous headlines, inaccurate data. Are all these inadvertent or do they reflect a lowering of standards in the media – where the rush to print has introduced carelessness that can sometimes prove costly?


Earlier, nothing you wrote could find its way into print without passing through several filters, including people who were clued in on the law. Headline writers generally read the whole story before giving a headline. Even these would be checked before the page was passed. Much of this still exists but there is an obvious slackening of rigour. If there is a ‘post-mortem’ the next morning, and many media organisations have dispensed with this altogether, heads probably don’t roll if there is a mistake unless it provokes a legal notice.


Take just one day in the life of newspapers in Mumbai. On November 28, three newspapers that I read carried stories on the efforts of two NGOs to have a car-free day in South Mumbai. The divergence in the numbers quoted in the reports tells its own story.


On page 5, The Times of India had the following headline: “8,000 ditch vehicles to celebrate car-free SoBo”. (For the uninformed, SoBo is the fashionable name for south Mumbai.) But while the headline was unambiguous about 8,000 people participating, the first paragraph of the report read:


“An initiative to reclaim south Mumbai for pedestrians and cyclists got off to a great start on Sunday morning, with around 800 Mumbaikars ditching their vehicles to participate in a walkathon and a bike-a-thon.”


So who is right? The headline writer or the reporter?


If you thought reading another paper might yield more accurate information, you would be mistaken. Hindustan Times, on the same day, had a six column headline on page 5 stating, “SoBo’s Car Free Day fails to gather steam” and below that: “Poor response: Only 150 people turn up for event, participants complain of poor arrangements.”


How did HT spot only 150 people when TOI counted 800? Or 8,000?


In frustration, I then turned to Express Newsline of Indian Express. It echoed HT’s headline: “Lukewarm turnout, but walkers and cycling enthusiasts have free run”. But unlike the 150 number of HT, Express quoted an organiser claiming that 150 cyclists and 200 pedestrians had participated. So that adds up to 350. So in the end were there 8,000, 800, 350 or 150?


For those outside the media, this might sound like nitpicking. What does it matter? In any case, people only read one newspaper – that is if they read anything except the entertainment supplement.


Yet, the fact that a simple report like this could show such variance actually points to a very basic problem in journalism today. The golden rule about statistics and numbers is: if in doubt, leave out. The structure of newspapers is supposed to provide the checks so that inaccuracies are caught. Journalists are supposed to be trained to be especially careful with numbers. And to double- check everything, even the most trivial detail. When something so basic begins to break down, then you are laying the ground for the kind of mistakes that bring in lawsuits.


So even if Justice Katju’s remarks were sweeping generalisations, I would suggest that they were not entirely off the mark.


Kalpana Sharma is an independent journalist and columnist.

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