Millennium Post

Errors in black and white

I was meeting my 10-year-old nephew studying in Class IV after many years. He asked me where I worked. I gave him the name of the English daily where I worked in the editing department. He then asked me what work I did. I told him reporters filed stories and an important task of the people in my department was to correct their language and cross-check facts. He kept silent for a while before saying, ‘But many mistakes in language remain in your newspaper even after the corrections made by the editors.’ A Class IV student could see that the language of journalism had errors. He had given all the esteemed editors a failure certificate. That was in 2002.

In 1996, two years into my career as a journalist, I was working in an English newspaper in Delhi. The paper has been a reputed media brand for decades. I answered a call one afternoon directed by the telephone board of the office to the ‘desk’, the name for the editing department in journalism parlance. At the other end was the anguished voice of an elderly man. He said with disgust and despair, ‘What are you guys doing? Your paper has mistakes even on the front page … in the headlines.’ I was not upset but happy about the call. I felt it was good that correct language in journalism still mattered to some people. I had found quite early in my career that the managers of print media houses are not bothered too much about getting the language of their publications right. The language crisis in the country has many facets. For one, I have discovered that students in many schools and colleges have not been taught correct language over many years in the past because the language of the teachers is incorrect. Students in a lot of schools and colleges don’t go through the rigour needed for developing the right language because of the casual approach of teachers towards correctness in language. The number of people emerging from colleges with correct language has dropped sharply over the years. The result is that very few really good editing hands have been joining media houses.

Editing in print media is broadly overseen by senior journalists and done by young journalists known as sub-editors or simply ‘subs’ in the profession. Mistakes appear in publications because most subs are simply not competent for their job. Good subs are not just few in number but also come at prices higher than what the market gives on an average to subs. Journalism is a competitive industry and publications have hugely increased the number of editorial pages to balance the rise in ad pages needed for higher revenue. So the volume of editorial work has gone up a lot over the years. A competitive market makes it necessary to do everything possible to maximise revenue and minimise cost. So the maximum amount of editing work is done at the lowest expense. Since the volume of work is high and its quality in terms of language and other aspects of content can be compromised to a great extent, it makes sense for media managers to maximise revenue by having four cheap subs with poor language in place of one or two expensive subs with good language. The volume of work is high and driven by deadlines. I will briefly explain below why quality of work is not very important for media managers. But most media houses prefer workers who quickly deliver a lot of work, even if it is of bad quality, to workers who take more time and produce lesser quantity of work because the quality of their work is good.

The phone call about language mistakes I received in my newspaper office becomes relevant here. Publications have realised they can get away with poor quality work in their bid to maximise revenue because very few such calls are being made. The sweet truth for print media managers is that most readers have just not been making wrong language an issue right since the beginning of the 1990s when the language of journalism started deteriorating. Readers can demonstrate their preference for good content, including correct language, by shunning publications with poor content and opting for those with rich material. But the intense rivalry in the media industry since the 90s made most media houses sacrifice quality in pursuit of revenue.

Since most publications have been of poor quality, readers have no option but to become indifferent to quality. This indifference of readers allows media houses to continue chasing revenue at the expense of content quality. When I was in school in the 70s and 80s, students were advised to read newspapers and magazines not just to improve general awareness but language too. Is it time now to ask children to keep off newspapers to save their language? Or does it just not matter now if a person doesn’t speak and write correctly? For me these are scary questions with scarier answers. It should not have become necessary to ask these questions in the first place.

The author is a senior journalist and columnist

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