Hawk-eyed reader

March 13, 2019


I AM sometimes pleasantly surprised — and awed — by the hawk-eyed reader scanning this newspaper. There are, for instance, readers who home in on such fine details as diction and punctuation, while one welcomed with relish a rare use of ‘had been being’ by a columnist. However, there are some bewildering comments which discover a sea change in Dawn policy on the basis of a single editorial, or the page-one contents of a given day or an article by a columnist or freelancer.

On social media and in drawing room banter, I have noticed even otherwise well-informed people betraying a shocking lack of knowledge about how a newspaper is produced, and how the time factor, space constraints and what can be called the ‘gate-crashing’ of a news item as the deadline approaches serve to distort display. One can argue that that exactly is the challenge, and a veteran news editor and his team — those in trenches — should be able to control their nerve and respond professionally. That’s theory.

What does the news editor do if a ‘must’ ad lands at midnight on page one to crowd out important items?; or an ad is suddenly withdrawn, requiring the filling of a yawning gap? Many undeserving stories have to be accommodated in the latter case and deserving ones dropped or shoved inside in the former case as the production manager’s menacing eyes look at the night editor. Thus any conclusions with regard to policy on the basis of a day’s paper would be false.

Many of the comments are spot on. Some are bewildering.

Recently, a reader’s reaction to a column by Abbas Nasir (Jan 26) epitomised the kind of generalisation I have referred to. In a piece entitled, ‘A horrifying scenario’, the former Dawn editor wrote about the state of mental health in Pakistan and led off with a welcome slogan — ‘Raise awareness, erase stigma’ — by Dr Haroon Ahmad, one of Pakistan’s leading psychiatrists, who heads the Pakistan Association for Mental Health (PAMH). Dr Ahmad, among other things, had called for the removal of “avoidable stressors” that impact individual and community behaviour and lead, among other symptoms, to ‘targeted killings’. Abbas used the word ‘stressors’ twice and then dwelt on the Sahiwal tragedy.

To some readers, I concede, it could have appeared odd that the Sahiwal atrocity should have been linked to the state of the nation’s mental health, but even odder was a reader’s claim that she was ‘baffled’ by Dawn’s ‘recent policy’ — one column showing Dawn’s ‘recent policy?’

I sought Abbas Nasir’s comment. He said: “One of the points the PAMH mentions as having an impact on mental health is insecurity, crime and violence. Also, the association was calling on the government to make improvement in this area, too. I juxtaposed the two to argue that it was a forlorn hope a government, whose ministers’ lack of empathy over innocents being murdered was so apparent, would do anything.” (I hope the lady reads this article. Notwithstanding her objections, my hats off to her. She worked voluntarily for 15 years for Karwan-i-Hayat, a mental health NGO.)

Another reader complained that Dawn editorials contained “difficult words” requiring dictionary use. This, he said, distracted from reading. Another referred to my article, ‘Caught on camera’ (Dec 30), and said I used the words ‘autoschediastic’ and ‘quotidian’, when easier words were available. I agree he has a point. I must choose ‘normal’ words. Another scrutiniser asked why in the headline he sighted, Dawn capitalised the first letter of the word following the colon. Dawn’s style sheet lays down that the first letter following a colon must not be cap, though it should be if the colon is followed by a long quote. That this rule is sometimes not followed makes journalism what it is — literature in a hurry.

And here is something very interesting. A reader asked me why Dawn publishes so many corrections. Dear reader, there is no newspaper in this world which doesn’t make and acknowledge mistakes. Publishing a newspaper is like writing and editing a book in a day. The key issue is checking, rechecking and multi-checking facts. No matter how efficient you are, you cannot stretch time to check what you think needs further investigation.

I have before me a copy of one of America’s leading newspapers and it has five ‘corrections’. They make interesting reading. In every case the ‘average’ reader wouldn’t know the faux pas but those affected would. One correction says: “An obituary […] omitted the name of one of Mr Pervin and Mia Furrow’s children; in ­addition to those named, they had a daughter, Lark, who died in 2008.” And here is another one: “An article […] about art and Trump presidency referred incorrectly to the project titled, ‘Ivanka vacuuming’. There was one look-alike model vacuuming, not several.”

The writer is Dawn’s Readers’ Editor and author

Published in Dawn, March 13th, 2019