Rana Ayyub vs DNA: Understanding the new rules of digital journalism

There is a cautionary tale in the Rana Ayyub vs DNA drama. But chances are it will get drowned in the competing din of Amit Shah loyalists belligerent about what they see as character assassination or Modi-foes who see the death knell for dissent. This is not just a story about a trial by media for Amit Shah or a trial by social media for DNA. It’s been presented as a freedom of expression story but it’s really about the pitfalls of publishing in a digital age without shedding an old print mindset.

Others can, and have, weighed in on the factual merits or legal loopholes in Rana Ayyub’s particular story. And the likes of a Shashi Tharoor have weighed in on the freedom of expression angle. There’s no smoking gun anywhere yet to indicate there was pressure to remove the story from somewhere higher-up. That does not mean calls were not made and pressure was not applied but in DNA’s defence, there are many reasons stories get pulled. The layperson cannot always see that a story that just reads like an impassioned opinion can actually be, even unwittingly, a legal minefield. Legal departments around the world routinely scotch many stories for those reasons.

But this one is really a story about media and process. In a changing media landscape, no newspaper has the final say on anything. As the Twitterstorm, the NewsLaundry story about the story and then the rebuttal by Harini Calamur, head of digital content for Zee Media which owns DNA, on her blog, have demonstrated, the story takes on a life of its own on the internet. Reputations are made and tested and soiled in that largely unedited scrum.

Image used for representational purposes only. AFP.

Image used for representational purposes only. AFP.

Let us set aside the arguments for and against Ayyub’s piece. Let us also set aside whether DNA chose to crawl when asked to bend, a phrase made memorable by LK Advani in the context of the media during the Emergency. Or even worse, as Arunabh Saikia notes on NewsLaundry:

"Indian news media’s history is replete with examples of pre-emptive censorship. Remember the “crawled when asked to bend” remark? Who knows, maybe for some, you don’t even need to ask."

The real problem here is that the media often forgets that its raison d’etre is communication. This has become a story about a total failure of communication.

Journalist Rana Ayyub writes a piece very describing the elevation of Amit Shah as the president of the BJP as a “new low in Indian politics” for DNA newspaper on 9 July. DNA runs it but then without explanation pulls it from the web resulting in a social media firestorm.
Ayyub says according to Newslaundry “her sources at DNA confirmed to her that the story had indeed been taken down”.

Kunal Majumadar, Associate Editor (Digital) at Zee Media tells NewsLaundry “I also got to know when Rana came to know.” Calamur says nothing because, she says, she was at a long meeting. Meanwhile Ayyub, who has been writing regularly for DNA since April 2014 says no one there officially gave her a reason for the editorial volte face.

Much talk clarifying nothing. Clearly for media, communication does not begin at home.

Rule 1: You must communicate with the writer. A publication has every right to pull a story it feels is unsound, legally iffy, and scurrilous. But it must communicate that with the writer. Instead here a writer tweets about her anger at the publication and the publication’s editor blogs about her concerns with the piece, both talking across each other, all of it adding to the swirling confusion instead of clearing it up.

Rule 2: You must communicate with the reader. A reader invests a certain trust in a publication by choosing to read it. A publication needs to reciprocate that trust instead of taking it for granted. Many pieces come to publications and never see the light of day. Somewhere along the line every editor has to weigh the pros and cons of a piece. Every decision to publish or not to publish does not have to be vetted by a public referendum. It’s a newspaper, not the Aam Aadmi Party. Not publishing a piece is not automatically an attack on freedom of expression. However once a piece is published and pulled, the publication is honour-bound to offer an explanation. Even Calamur admits as much on her blog:

I cannot rewrite an opinion writers’ piece. but, we could have put out a note when we took it down .

The operative word here needed to be “should” rather than “could”.

Rule 3: If you decide to communicate you must convey information. Calamur says she understands the “readers’ ire” and “the author’s anger” and would have felt the same in her place. She admits she did the very thing she has ranted about in the last decade – “in the need for speed, the desire to be first, to put out a piece, I didn’t look at it with the attention that it deserved.” And “everything doesn’t have to be conspiracy theory… Sometimes there are simpler explanations.” All fair points. Yet her post eventually does not give out that “simpler” explanation. It lists all the reasons why the piece was not pulled. It was not about fear, it was not about pressure. It was actually about…. Well the communication trail dries up before it reveals that answer leaving the guessing game intact.

All this “communication” does not answer the basic process questions. Best practices suggest if a publication have problem with a piece they contact the writer, give her a chance to modify or explain. If a piece needs to be pulled, the writer should be the first person to be told and given a chance to respond if needed. If those commonsensical steps had been followed there would be less heartache all around.

It is fine for an editor not to engage in a 140-character public spat on Twitter to explain editorial decisions. But media needs to acknowledge that digital has changed the rules of the game. As Lakshmi Chaudhry wrote on Firstpost:

Online media’s greatest weakness is the need for immediacy which often results in the publication of unverified information. But it is also a strength when we see its impact on old school newsroom hierarchies…Yes, more mistakes are made, but they can — and are — quickly corrected, for unlike print media, online news culture encourages the speedy correction of errors.

Now pretty much every news outlet has a digital avatar. Correcting a mistake or issuing an explanation is not such an onerous task and no editor should be pretending as if we are living in Gutenberg’s world and giant printing presses will have to roll to explain one factual error.

We who live and work in the media glasshouse cannot afford to throw too many stones. Today’s DNA mishap could easily happen to another media house, including this one. But if we learn anything from this, it is we cannot afford to hide behind pointing fingers at everyone else for having “pulled out, pulled back, changed tack on issues” out of “fear, favour or fickleness”. Media publications cannot do what they always accuse politicians of doing – passing the blame around where BJP says Congress did the same before it and Trinamool says CPM did worse.

Everyone does it, and worse, is not an excuse. Rupa Subramanya points out that around the same time as the DNA ado, NDTV did some U-turns on a story about Sonia and Rahul Gandhi and the Herald House/Young Indian case where a report was broadcast, pulled and then restored accompanied by terse and mysterious explanations. NDTV did not face quite the same social media furore. One could read selective outrage into that just as one can read conspiracies into the the DNA story. But the fact remains again media failed to communicate with the public. As Hartosh Singh Bal tweeted “we didn't need less outrage about dna, we needed more about NDTV.”

This is not to pick on any particular media house but just to say every publication has to set standards for itself instead of helping to lower the chalta hai standard for accountability all around. Since we live in the proverbial glasshouse, shouldn’t that at the very least make us a bit more mindful about transparency?


Updated Date: Jul 15, 2014 07:39 AM

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