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By:A.S. Panneerselvan,   Source: The Hindu

Journalism is increasingly being subjected to various forms of attack. Some cast aspersions on journalists, some accuse journalists of being ideologically blinkered. A news ombudsman’s observations too are subjected to scrutiny. Once you recognise that journalism is an interlocking public, you tend to draw journalistic lessons from diverse sources. But there is a catch. When a practitioner makes a distinction between contradiction and multiple truths, it may be seen as a misleading exercise for some distant observers.

I never thought that an answer to the question of trust would lie in the science pages of this newspaper. In his weekly column, Speaking of Science (July 7), D. Balasubramanian cited a recent study to prove an important point: “Individual people are actually more honest than they think they are”. The study sought “to examine whether people act more dishonestly when they have a greater economic incentive to do so, and found the opposite to be true.” It found that civic honesty is much more prevalent than what cynics would like us to believe.

The line between news and views

I interact with readers as well as journalists to address questions relating to journalism, ethics and fairness. Some of them used the latest anthology of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, The Scandal of the Century and Other Writings, to question the arguments advanced in this column. A person on the desk asked me how I reconcile my respect for Marquez with my column, “The adjective filter” (September 30, 2013), in which I had argued that the dividing line between news and views must be maintained. Marquez’s journalistic writing is rich with adjectives, and his effortless editorialising is what gave him global readership, she said. How do we relate to this journalism which has no line between news and views?

Another young reporter pulled out sentences from The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor and When I Was Happy and Undocumented, major journalistic works of Marquez, to again point out his liberal use of adjectives. A third said that I had once praised author Salman Rushdie for his coverage of the U.S. presidential election in which he had written “…the motorcades of two largely interchangeable and certainly unlovable presidential candidates (Gush, Bore)…”. Wasn’t Mr. Rushdie essentially editorialising to assert that George W. Bush’s rhetoric was empty and gushing and that Al Gore’s arguments failed to resonate with the electorate because they were boring, he asked. And how about the overt editorialising in Amitav Ghosh’s journalistic essay “Countdown”, which appeared after the nuclear tests in India and Pakistan in 1998, in which he wrote: “The pursuit of nuclear weapons in the subcontinent is the moral equivalent of civil war: the targets the rulers have in mind for these weapons are, in the end, none other than their own people.”

My columns deal with the rules that govern journalism as well as some of the finest writings that have shaped our lives. Is there an inherent contradiction in citing and celebrating the journalistic writings of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Zadie Smith, Amitav Ghosh and Salman Rushdie on the one hand and insisting on the firm line that separates news and opinion on the other?

Information and insight

There is a vast difference between these exceptionally gifted writers covering a specific event and general reporting. These writers are commissioned to provide insights into what is happening, while a reporter is expected to provide information. The distinction is not an arbitrary one but a considered effort to help readers get both information and insight. I still believe that the adjective filter helps news to emerge from the emotional cauldron of the on-field experience without being judgemental. It reinforces that cardinal principle of good journalism: let the facts speak for themselves.

The reason for celebrating the journalistic works of these great writers is not for the exemplary writing style, but for their journalistic rigour. When talking about his fiction, Marquez said: “But those books have such an amount of research and fact checking and historical rigour that in fact they are basically great fictional or fantastic reports, but the method of investigation and the way of handling the information and the facts is that of a journalist.” We need to recognise this fact to celebrate the multiple forms of writings that constitute journalism.