Through the Looking-Glass

The Readers’ Editor writes: Readers’ letters to the editor are a commentary on our times

Accusation, manipulation of fact and open prejudice often take precedence over reasoned debate.

Rather than look at what Scroll.in publishes for the readers, this column this week looks at what the readers of Scroll.in themselves say.

Readers get a fair amount of space on Scroll.in to express their views. Where earlier the Letters to the Editor section appeared once a week, it is now published thrice a week, with up to 10-12 letters on each occasion. This is much more than what most other (digital and print) publications make available for readers, though I would prefer a daily publication to eventually put out a daily Letters to the Editor section, even if with a smaller number of letters on each occasion.

Scroll.in publishes most of the letters it receives. The editor says up to 90%-95% of readers’ letters are published, with the letters edited only to make the arguments tighter. The letters are sometimes very brief and to the point, and sometimes up to 300-400 words long, giving the letter-writer enough space to develop the argument. Here again, Scroll.in is different from most other publications, which usually publish a much smaller proportion of letters received and also heavily edit them for length.

But what do the readers of Scroll.in themselves say?

Critical, personal, political

I looked at the letters published on six days between May 3 and May 16. The exercise was interesting.

First, readers of Scroll.in do not hold themselves back. For the larger part, they are more critical than appreciative of the articles published by Scroll.in. (Is this the general view of readers or is it that only the angry write in? More likely the latter.) I am glad Scroll.in is not censoring these views though I presume the expletives and the abusive letters are dropped. Here Scroll.in is much like the Outlook magazine of old, which was one of the few publications in India to give importance to the letters section and was also not afraid to publish critical/very critical letters.

Second, in the Letters to the Editor section on Scroll.in, there is a much larger comment on politics and current affairs. This is not surprising. Politics is what always excites the Indian reader, more so in these times of mobilisation of extreme views. But it is also disappointing that politics gets so much comment and the rest so little, because one of the strengths of Scroll.in is the very diverse subjects it covers. And there is much to comment there, sometimes even critically.

A third feature of letters from readers is that at times – quite frequently actually – they are more about the readers’ views than comments on the facts and arguments in the original articles. Readers seem to use the opportunity to express their views, even if these opinions are sometimes on matters not covered in the published article. This may seem a bit odd, but it is to be appreciated that Scroll.in does not drop such letters – which they would be justified in doing – because the editors should see them as readers having their say in short comments.

The four subjects/articles that attracted the most letters in the past fortnight were those commenting on articles on the Nirbhaya judgement (and the Bilkis Bano case), on triple talaq, on the Supreme Court sentencing Justice CS Karnan to six months in prison for contempt of court, and on different aspects of Kashmir.

All of these were the most important political/legal issues of the past fortnight on which a number of articles were published. They, therefore, obviously attracted the most comment. They are also issues where passions run high and where views can be extreme, another reason for the considerable amount of comment.

Anger, not always debate

The unfortunate thing is that at a time when political mobilisation on slogans of nationalism and religion is becoming stronger by the day, this mood is reflected in the Letters to the Editor as well. One comment on this article that questioned the view that there was an Islamisation/radicalisation of people’s protests in Kashmir evoked this response in the Letters to the Editor column of May 7 (“Kashmir Crisis”): “In any case, if you think that you are occupied by India then remember that it is our land.” This to me is an example of the ugly face of contemporary public discourse that is not an uncommon occurrence.

Likewise, another reader in a letter on the same day had no time for any reflection on the case against capital punishment. Writing about this article that had critically examined the Supreme Court’s award of capital punishment in the context of the Nirbhaya judgement, one reader said “…the Indian public unanimously believes that any rape calls for the highest penalty and this case is no exception”.

Letters, unfortunately, often become platforms for expressing extreme anger rather than promoting a dialogue with the writer of an article or with an idea put forward in the published piece. The latter kind of response enriches public debate, the former does not.

There was a flurry of criticism on May 5 of an opinion piece by Apoorvanand that had questioned the presence of members of the defence forces at a public function where obeisance was paid to Bharat Mata. A reasoned critique drew seven letters (“Saffronising Bharat”), all but one going after the author. (Interestingly, the one letter that had positive views about Apoorvanand’s arguments came from a retired member of the defence forces.)

We live in times where accusation, manipulation of fact and open prejudice often take precedence over reasoned debate. Yet, such views too need to be aired publicly and Scroll.in is right in not keeping them out. Only the vitriol and hate need to be kept out. And we need more of genuine questioning and an engagement with debate.

For me, the letter of the fortnight was this one on May 7 by Dana Hardy, appreciative and yet critical in one respect of Scroll.in’s handling of an article on breastfeeding that had been published on May 6:

“I want to thank you for your great articles on breastfeeding and childbirth. Thank you for taking on such a crucial topic for mothers, children and families in India. You are able to get leaders in the field to express what leaders across India need to hear and examine. We can truly move forward if we debate and collaborate on such issues. However, though the content of this article is excellent, the team has chosen an image of a baby feeding from a bottle. If we want to normalise and promote breastfeeding, then we need to choose images that convey this message. Even without reading the article, your audience and readers are getting the message that bottle feeding is okay. We want the article to send the message that breastfeeding is the first and best choice, so this needs to be conveyed in the image too.”

A letter like this only strengthens my view expressed some months ago that Scroll.in is correct in its decision not to have the Comments feature, and instead invite readers to air their views through Letters to the Editor. Letters, too, can go off course but they do not have the immediacy and sometimes the anonymity of Comments that makes them prone to becoming vicious attacks rather than thoughtful interventions. So, let us stay with Letters to the Editor. Let the section appear more frequently. Let there be more letters from readers. And let us hope they become forums for an exchange of views.

Readers can write to the Readers’ Editor at readerseditor@scroll.in

Support our journalism by subscribing to Scroll+ here. We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
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