It’s a subject to which some space is devoted in the Mint code of conduct, and it is an issue that is in the news about the news this week, so it is time to look at how newspapers and TV channels in this country attribute quotes.
Much has been made of how CNN-IBN passed off a recorded interaction as a live one, and the channel and anchor in question have done the right thing by apologizing —and with no yes-but qualifications that journalists are wont to use when they mess up, which is very creditable—but the larger issue is that most journalists and editors in this country are pretty careless about the correct attribution of quotes.
Most of the incorrect usage is a function of time (using an old quote in a new news story), source (using a quote given to another publication, channel or news agency without credit), and context. Some of it is innocuous, but still dishonest. For instance, Mint requires every story to have an independent comment, preferably by an analyst. Some reporters pick quotes from research reports put out by equity research firms and use them, conveniently forgetting, in some cases, to mention the source (they do so under the impression that it makes them look better). At Mint, we have gotten around the problem by simply mandating the rewrite desk to, as a matter of course, check the provenance of any analyst comment.
Television channels, which have sort of made a habit of amplifying print’s imperfections in their own processes, do a lot worse, simply because most news bulletins go out live from studios. This means the anchor is on real time. And more often than not, reporters or the people the channel wants to feature are not. Maybe because anchors in India have been told to fill dead air with the sound of their own voices, most keep up a lively—agree, it’s sometimes irritating—banter. One way to do this is to pretend there is someone on the other side of the discussion. Business TV channels do this sometimes with foreign analysts and experts. The quotes are sourced from their partner or parent networks and used as answers to questions by the Indian anchor (that weren’t actually asked). There’s also the small matter of this approach making the news bulletin that much more interactive.
If news channels do this in bulletins—a fact that I am aware of—then it doesn’t come as a surprise to me that they do so in panel discussions and debates (although, I must confess, I wasn’t aware that they did so).
Websites are no different, and in the US, several media companies believe Huffington Post’s attribution policies are downright edgy. Huffington Post’s Indian clone firstpost.in follows a similar approach, which it calls “curation” (it essentially means that the site’s editors read other publications, and sort of synthesize that information, aggregating important and relevant tidbits from several sources into a digestible whole; often this makes it look as if the site itself has reported the story). Mint was at the receiving end of such curation once, and one of the paper’s newsbreaks (and the quotes in that story) was used without attribution by the site. To be fair, the site’s editors tendered a handsome apology when I ranted about this on Twitter, and then redid the article with the correct attribution.
To digress, despite the edginess of their practices, the behaviour of curated sites is still far ahead of that of websites that flagrantly flout copyright with the disclosure that they will immediately take down something if the copyright owner objects. Or that of the multinational publishing firm that wrote to me seeking permission to use something that had appeared in Mint with a note at the end that said that if it failed to receive a reply from me within a week, it would assume that I had no problems with the use of the article (I am not naming the firm simply because the mail seems to have vanished during a routine archiving exercise; damn you Lotus Notes).
The purpose of proper attribution is to provide the reader or viewer with correct and adequate information. In the case of a TV panel discussion, that would definitely mean telling the viewer that the comments of one of the panelists were pre-recorded ones. And in the case in question, the anchor in question could have simply chosen not to pretend that there was someone at the other end of the video link. Still, I see little point in crucifying an individual for an accepted industry-wide practice.
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