Monday December 10th marks two small victories for media accountability. The Indian Express announced the launch of a regular column on corrections 'that will list errors in the newspaper with clarifications.' Readers are invited to send complaints and comments to the Corrections Editor.
And the Hindu's Reader's Editor finally took note of all the murmurings about the newspaper's coverage of Nandigram. In a column titled 'When readers find an incomplete picture' he decided to tackle head on the criticism that the Hindu's coverage of events there had been rather deficient.
First he quoted from letters from readers who wrote in from Mauritius, Chicago, Paris, Singapore and Tokyo in addition to Chennai, Hyderabad and Allahabad. Said one of them, ''a serious ailment called double standard has crept into the editorial team.' Another said rather directly, 'You are behaving in exactly the same way as the Indian Express did in the nuclear deal.' All except one from the ones quoted, voiced surprise, dismay or disappointment at perceived bias and/or self abdication in the matter of commenting on the communist government's role.
Then the Reader's Editor ran this past the editor in chief who defended the coverage as being factual and sober. Finally the Reader's Editor concluded that the reporting in the Hindu had indeed been selective.
Even as ideological alignments are unabashedly evident in Indian newspapers steps towards accountability to the readers will be welcomed as a counter-balance. We'll wait to see whether the Indian Express will take a narrow view on corrections or whether it will also answer charges of bias when levied. After all, like the Hindu, its coverage is sometimes perceived to follow a pre-determined ideological line.
Taken with Mint, three English language newspapers now have a distinct forum for responding to reader complaints. (There may be more, please write in and tell us which publications you know of, including regional language ones, are there which correct their mistakes and tackle complaints as a regular policy.) Mint also puts the Code of Conduct which governs its newsroom on its website. More newspapers need to tell us what sort of code of conduct they follow. And readers need to see these and hold the papers concerned to the norms they claim.
The Hoot also urges media consumers everywhere to write in to the newspapers they subscribe to and the TV channels which they watch when they have complaints. As choice grows, and reader/viewer patronage can be taken for granted less and less, the media will be forced to seek ways to make themselves accountable. Institutional mechanisms for redress are still some way off in the case of radio and television, and the Press Council lacks bite. So for now alert readers will have to use the Internet to write to the papers they read so that they know they are being watched.
The tussle will be an ongoing one. On the same day, the 10th of December, The Hindustan Times, Indian Express, Times of India and Asian Age all reported prominently on page one that Prakash Karat, CP(M) general secretary had asked the government to end negotiations with the International Atomic Energy Agency by the end of December or face mid-term Lok Sabha polls.
The news was carried in the day's Hindu, a single column item on page 12.