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The time for truth

india Updated: Aug 28, 2009 15:44 IST
Sumana Ramanan
Sumana Ramanan
Hindustan Times
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Sumana Ramanan
Senior Editor

Ask any journalist what her or his main obligations to the reader are in order of importance and truth-telling is likely to figure on top of the list. It also seems childishly obvious that truth is what all readers want. The question is how long are they willing to wait for it?

God knows it is difficult for journalists to get at the truth, or the truth as they see it. As George Orwell said, all that journalists can hope to do is to “report contemporary events… as truthfully as is consistent with the ignorance, bias and self-deception from which every observer necessarily suffers.”

But even getting at what’s left of the truth after all these provisos is often a daunting proposition, especially within a given timeframe, which is constantly shrinking in today’s pressurecooker environment of 24-hour news.

Newspapers are, after all, competing not only with their own kind but also with television channels and Internet news sites.

So many times, a reporter will get a good story from a source who does not want to go on record. Ideally, we would like to get a second, independent source to confirm the information.

Often, we can do this only if we wait for a day or two more.

But there is always the danger that our competitors will go ahead and publish the same story, with or without the independent confirmation. For all newspapers, the pressure to do this is particularly high in a breaking story that television channels are already running through the day.

Here is where readers come in. What do newspaper readers want?

Do they want the story as fast as possible but are then willing to tolerate a degree of uncertainty about it and are open to the newspaper amending it later if necessary? Or do they want an ironclad story even if that will take longer to put out and will get to them with a little time lag?

This is not at all clear to me, although going from what viewers of television news seem to want, I would think the former is likely to be the more common answer. (Am I right?)

Viewers of television news don’t seem to want to wait for the full story. The majority of viewers in a survey conducted by the British Broadcasting Corporation said that they wanted to hear conjectures, unconfirmed facts and even rumours as the news organisation got wind of them.

The news organisation had consequently changed its policy of putting out only information that their journalists could confirm with two independent sources, Sian Kevill, the editorial director of BBC World News, the broadcaster’s 24-hour international news and information TV channel, told HT’s editors on a recent visit to our office. But the organisation always makes it very clear to viewers what the status and source of the information are, she said.

If a journalistically (not politically) conservative organisation like BBC is willing to change its approach, why not mainstream newspapers?

My problem with newspapers going down this road (many are already at the end of it) is two-fold.

The first is that a 24-hour channel has the luxury of updating and even changing the information as and when necessary.

Newspapers must wait a whole

day before they can do this.

The second is that newspapers do have the luxury of time that television does not, so there is no excuse for them to put out anything that cannot be confirmed thoroughly.

But of course, there’s the competition to worry about. And here is yet another example of how competition actually threatens to dilute quality instead of improving it. And here is perhaps another instance where some self-regulation by newspapers might serve readers better.

If everyone sticks to the same ground rules, then readers have no choice but to wait for the whole truth.