V for vendetta

The Hindu published an article on October 28, 2013, titled “He has arrears in engineering, PhD in physics“. The article spoke of a 19-something year old Rohit Gunturi, a final year student of engineering at Anna University but already a PhD holder in physics from UC Berkeley. Inspiring as this is, the story at first glance throws up many alarms which I’m surprised were missed by the reporter, Ms. V.

A clarifying story was published later the same day by the reporter admitting that Mr. Gunturi’s claims were false.

This episode struck me for the following reasons:

From the audience’s perspective

  • The newspaper is not allowed to slip up – howsoever little, whenever it may be.
  • If and when the audience finds that a mistake has been committed in the newspaper, it turns very self-righteous.
  • Reporters are almost always remembered for their mistakes, not the lot of other things that they get right.
  • It is okay to publicly shame the reporter for one slip-up.
  • If the reporter slips up, he/she is stupid.

From the reporter’s perspective

  • It was admissible to assume that statements could be taken at face-value.
  • It was okay to comment on scientific research without checking with an expert in that field.
  • It was permissible to profile an individual without checking for conflicts of interest.
  • The information came from the Vice Chancellor of a large university, so it was true.*

From the newspaper management’s perspective

  • You’d think these guys would be more careful – but the same, original uncorrected version of the story appears the next day in the Coimbatore edition

All these occurrences came together to blow up the issue in the public sphere. In essence, the whole thing has played out as a second Sokal Affair, this one a rap on the knuckles for Indian newspapers as such – although I doubt incidents such as this are uncommon.

Moreover, the cauterizing reaction from engineering students from around the city was appalling. Any stone Ms. V has to throw now at Anna University or IIT Madras will almost invariably hit a student who’s either made fun of her or has read something that did. Of course, I have no idea of her prior relations with these people.

At the same time, I’m given to understand the students are not happy that she’s written stories about there being a lack of water in hostel toilets or fruits being lacking in their diets, etc., in the past. Do you think it’s silly? I’d like to know what things are like in the two largest government educational institutions in Chennai, my city. And if you disagreed, your tiff should be with The Hindu, not with Ms. V for doing her job.

And last: See the starred statement above (under the points of the reporter’s perspective)? How do you guard against people of that stature making half-true statements to a journalist? You can’t, really, but that doesn’t mean Ms. V is free to go. She claims she was presented with a document by the VC showing Mr. Gunturi had been awarded a PhD by UC Berkeley. She later admitted it was unsigned. This should serve as caution that nobody is above a fact-check.