Reporters Without Borders

I was probably 14 years old when I first heard about ‘Doctors Without Borders’. I was toying with ideas of becoming a doctor, and it seemed that this is where I would head if I did take up medicene.

As things worked out, I decided to become a reporter. And I spent quite a few months applying for all possible posts at Reporters Without Borders. I had no experience. All I had was a vision that this is where I wanted to be. Being a reporter to me was not something simple. It meant you had to walk a tight rope between facts and giving into your idealogies and sympathies. Conflict reporting was something that I was absolutely keen about, and several people asked me why. Several people tried to dissuade me by saying that this wasn’t a place for women.

But what was the point of being a reporter if all you did was write about pretty actresses, annoying politicians and corporate espionage? Human life matters. Beyond race, creed, sex, religion or borders. Something we forget all too often. Something we ignore all too often. It becomes about religion. About terror. About politics.

I wanted to write about the people who were living through this. Give them a voice. Bring their story to the public. And perhaps, in this situation, being a woman was an advantage because women could go in some places where men couldn’t.

From the other side of 30, I can possibly see the naiveity of this sentiment, of this ambition.

But if I got a chance to do it even today, I wouldn’t turn it down. Today, I realise that this was also a desire to learn for myself what the reality was. Not what media writes. Not stories written by people. Perhaps that is selfish.

At the end of the day, it is a person who suffers. It is a child who is left alone. Religion, caste, sex, country – they fade in the light of the misery and the horror. Maybe it won’t make a difference to tell these stories. In today’s world, all it will gain is a like and a share on Facebook. But the story would have been told. It would enter some consciousness, becoming another drop in the ocean, and eventually, maybe it will add up to something.

More importantly, people need to know the stories beyond the bigger picture. The decisions might not always be changeable. They might even be important for the bigger picture. But we need to know the price we are paying for it. If we are building a naval base at the cost of an indigenous society, maybe it is crucial for national security. But that does not negate the fact that we need to know that our security comes at the cost of destroying a culture, destroying landscape.

Perhaps we are building factories on forest land. And this is important for the livelihood of several thousands of people. But you need to be aware of what is the price of that factory. And maybe sometime, we’ve to say that the cost of it is too high. The question remains about where to draw the line… but we need to know.

Hinduism and Buddhism (and perhaps many other religions) have prayers to thank nature for offering us our livelihood. They ask us to apologize for hurting nature or anyone else, even if it is a tree being cut. They ask us to take only what we need and nothing more. Our needs are much higher today, but perhaps one needs to know what you are sacrificing for it.

In any case, a reporter’s job is not to judge. It is only to report the facts. The facts are both that the land is beyond destroyed and thousands of people displaced, and that the new building will benefit so many people and earn them money. It is up to the individual conscience what they think is right or wrong. And that’s why sometimes we need an outsider to give us the facts, because we are too entrenched in our story to see all the details.

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The Wolf of Wall Street

The Wall Street, they say, is more addictive than any drug in the world. It isn’t even the money that is addictive. It is the surge of power, the adrenaline when you are making a bid, the rush of beating others… the game of making money is what is so addictive.

I was reminded of that strongly when watching The Wolf of Wall Street. Of course, we watched the Wall Street of the late 80s and early 90s. Right after the Black Monday of 1987 and before the Black Monday of the 2008. The period when all the Wall Street dudes thought they crashed, burned and were phoenixes that were reborn and they were Gods. Before the follies of their mega-billion investments came to bite them back on their cocaine-riddled asses. 

The movie, with the combination of Martin Scorcese and Leonardo DiCaprio is everything that you think it would be. DiCaprio makes you forget that you are watching a man acting a part. You think that you are watching someone live it on screen. Better than any scripted reality show on TV today. And the story, created on the memoirs of Jordan Belford has all the seaminess and the thrill required for a Wall Street movie.

It makes you wonder if making money on the Wall Street is that easy. If you have followed the literature of Wall Street, you’ll know that it used to be that easy and you wonder why you weren’t born a couple of decades before. Every woman wanted to marry a trader or a banker… the ones with their $2000 suits and rolex watches and apartments in Upper Manhattan. Every man wanted to be that guy. 

Money… the counting and facts and figures has never been something of great interest to me. But even I can get drawn into a story about Wall Street. Because this is where fairy tales turn into reality. A poor, community college graduate can end up becoming a millionaire because he had the vision and was at the right place at the right time. 

Be it watching a movie like this one, or reading Confessions of a Wall Street Analyst, you feel that burst… that buzz inside you. You sit through the first 50 pages of Warren Buffet’s biography and you realise why the man got to the position he was in. You sit in front of your computer typing out a breaking story, knowing that it has the power to move worlds… and make or lose money for a lot of people… nothing can ever quite beat that rush. Which is the reason every business reporter… hell! reporter… sticks it out there for so long. To get that story that can shake the world and make you feel invincible.

The Road Of Indian Journalism

Have you heard of this thing called ‘Medianet’? If you are an average citizen, you might not have. If you are a reporter, the chances are you definitely know about it… and you’ve chosen your camp as well.

Let’s try another question… have you heard of the ‘Radiagate’? That whole scandal about that woman who apparently had the power to influence politicians and appointments and all that. I’m sure a lot of you wouldn’t mind being her, despite the scandals.

These are two issues that the Indian media has surprisingly been quiet about. Not a carefully guarded secret but something not bandied about in public either.

Of course, after the ‘sting’ operation by a foreign newspaper, some of our own presses have begun declaring that the supplements, which were thought to carry news, are actually ‘advertorials’.

To me, that move comes as a relief, even if I find it a little funny.

The India media has been sliding down for a long while now. Bribes and corruption exist among the watchdogs too… and has only gotten worse since it all became about the bottomlines.

24 hours of news has to be filled, and it needs to be ‘fresher’ and ‘different’ from the other 24 channels reporting the same thing. Considering how many channels have a chance to get scoops, it is only natural that they each resort to the shock value. And as the audience gets a little numb, the voltage is hiked up a little more.

People break down under constant pressure. Burnouts happen. So sometimes, we do take the easy way out. If someone like Radia offers us an exclusive in exchange to play messenger, the journalist compromises. It doesn’t seem like a big thing.

Then we grow lazier. We want the stories to come to us. If someone offers you a story on a platter, you do not bother digging into facts?

The first rule I was taught in journalism was never take anything at face value, always verify the facts. Even if the PR sent me the release, I would have to double check everything.

Recently, someone wrote an article about how the PR people were harassing the journalists to get their articles in place.

The field of PR and brand management were created for a reason. The PR does have some use to a reporter… they are under as much pressure to get publicity for their company as a reporter is under to get news. Perhaps more.

Any PR person with ethics would not cross boundaries to get their articles in place. Any journalist with ethics would not take the freebies in return for an article.

So it all comes down to ethics… and what you are willing to do to get that job done. If you want to be lazy, if you want to compromise on quality, if you want to misuse the power that you do have.

We become journalists because, somewhere, we were all idealists and we believed we could make a difference.

We can. If people do believe us.

But now, we don’t believe that we can. So where does that leave the idealist?

My Job

Here’s the thing.

I think my job is fairly simply. I write stories/articles and they get published in newspapers/magazines/online places and you read them.

It is fairly straightforward to me. Which is why it confuses the hell out of me when someone asks me “What is it you do?”

When more than half the people who ask this question read newspapers every day and are probably  holding one of those things in their hands at that very moment, how can it be so difficult to understand ‘what is it that I do?’

I collect news and I write about it, which you read and then pretend to be well-informed about the world. What on earth about that little thing is so complicated?

 

Kevin Carter. Being A Reporter.

I spent much of yesterday reading about Kevin Carter. And his friend Ken Oosterbroek.

That perhaps explains the melancholy I felt at the end of the day. Carter’s story is a depressed one. While his image of the vulture and the little girl is absolutely captivating, his story was written a long time before that.

Artists are supposed to be tortured souls. It is pain that apparently gives us the power to write. Without misery, there would be no poetry. Maybe that could be simply because it is harder to capture happiness.

But Carter lived and suffered. The little things of society – racism, money, bigotry, famine and sheer hate – got to him.

Carter faced much criticism for his decision to walk away from the girl and just leave her there. Nobody knows if she survived. And sitting in the comfort of our living rooms, it is easy to judge Carter for walking away.

But was she the only single kid there, starving and dying? Didn’t he go there to shoot a famine? What do you do in the face of such sheer misery? Such vastness of misery? How do you explain your helplessness and sheer inability to help a whole country of people?

A reporter constantly has the struggle between intruding and merely reporting. We are taught in journalism class to be objective. But perhaps it is already too late by the time we are even in that class, so the best we can do is try to get both sides of the story and let people figure out where the truth lies.

So sometimes we shoot wars, people dying, accidents and other tragedies and all we can be is a spectator. Do we feel nothing?

I cannot really answer that question. There is a sense of detachment that comes from self-preservation. Those images haunt you when you go back to the hotel room or your home. The cries of grief that you managed to block out and tell the story come back in your sleep.

Maybe that was the reason I did not choose television reporting. Perhaps the people who are working in that media platform are equally sensitive. But the Indian media has gotten so sensational that sometimes there is no time to think. My friends who work in that world talk about it with disgust. Some of them. To the others, it is just another job at the end of the day and just another story at it.

Self preservation happens naturally. For the moment at least. But when you sit alone, there are some of us who simply are not strong enough to block out those voices, the cries and the images that haunt us forever.

 

Who’ll watch the media?

I came across this interesting website today – CounterMedia. A watchdog for the media, you could say (though I wonder about the futility of such an act).

The way the Indian media is going these days, we definitely need someone to keep an eye out for the blatant disrespect for ethics and laws. Sting operations, screening violent and unnecessary images, sensationalizing every single thing and not to mention play those same old images a million times till you get bugged of them.

The screen at work was on continuously today, with one of the channels playing the whole political drama playing out in Karnataka. The ticker kept reading “breaking news” even after it was quite obvious it was the 100th time the Governor’s quote was being replayed. They looped the 1 minute clip of the fight in the Assembly, with people falling over, ripping their clothes out and more.

To be honest, I had not been following the drama so closely. This is not the first time JDU has pulled such nonsense and unless someone ousts the pests that run the party, it won’t be the last.

But I finally googled it to figure what the Governor said that created such a huge drama. And I was shocked to see the entire Democratic set up being ripped apart. The judgment of the Governor and the Speaker is considered holy. True, they are people too and hence biased. But in a shoddy democracy, they are the last hope.

A mere elected representative create such a drama. And now they are off to Delhi to get their case heard. They obviously have not heard of video conferences, telephones or cellphones. It has to be a face-to-face meeting, so they can yell and break things in person.

While I completely condone what is happening in the government, the drama on the television channel completely overdoses on the seriousness of the issue. The problem here is corrupt and power-hungry politicians (nothing new in that either). But I completely lose track of what is happening when I’m watching TV.

[Side note – Can we hope the President bans ALL these people from contesting elections EVER again? That’d be too much to hope for I guess]

The same thing happened with the Ayodhya verdict. For about half an hour, I couldn’t figure out what the hell was happening. There were people shouting.

It is perhaps easy to blame the television media for this kind of blatant disrespect to issues and sensationalizing things. But the problem lies in the viewership. The viewership that has grown jaded with the overdose of reality shows, that trips out on talking how ‘shocking’ that murder was. When you keep listening to the same thing every day, looking for gossip material, merely saying ‘it was a gruesome murder’ will not suffice at some point. We need to go into the genre of gore movies and show the blood splattered all over, the limbs cut away and lying in a pool of blood.

The reporters need to push harder to meet that bar set by their editors/superiors, who in turn are being pushed by the management to get high TRPs, which translates into bigger revenues and profits.

So where does the problem lie? With privately-owned channels that run on a revenue model and a gossip-hungry public.

They aren’t problems exclusive to India alone. Tabloids do more business everywhere in the world. We are curious people and we are mean, so we love to read about other’s miseries. In India, given our tendency to suppress natural desires, subjects like ‘a guy murdered his lover’ – with its tinges of drama, sex and whatever else – really sells.

We talk about it, all the while smugly saying “that would never happen to us.”

Of course, the reporters are equally responsible for bringing such news.  Perhaps as idealistic, just-out-of-college reporters without having bills to pay, we could say we will not report such news. And many do. I know people in the industry who are disgusted with what they do and try to hold on to some of those ideas with which we became reporters. But at one point, someone will slip. It is a high pressure job. 24 hours of news isn’t an easy job… particularly in days when the best you get is boring old economic data.

Would you watch 24 hours of boring economic data? Talking about how chilli prices went up while oil stayed down?

The question is – how far will the media go? Sting operations are now the norm at every channel, since Tehelka pulled one of eons ago. Nobody (excepts for the lawyers) whispers the word “privacy invasion.” It was acceptable with politicians taking bribes but busting into people’s homes for a story is just… sick. How far will we go before someone has to rap us and we lose all credibility?

Hell, I don’t trust what I watch on TV or read half the time. Real news, I believe, often lies in the content of half a dozen newspapers.

Link of the day: Times Now interview with Governor

The reason I love my job

Well, sometimes. After you’ve been working for a while, you settle into a rhythm, a routine and things get boring. Even in a job that is as versatile as mine, sometimes you get into a rut writing about the same kind of stuff. You are writing new things like a new company’s results, a new product and all of that, and you are learning and it is fun. But it is still… mundane.

And one day you interview someone or just talk and you realise how much of a difference your writing makes. That there are issues much bigger than what you do and the writing contributes to it some small way or the other.

I spoke to someone regarding a story I am working on today. There was a brief I skimmed through before I called him. I knew what he did and all of that. It is an interview and you are prepared, to a certain extent. But during the course of the interview, it came out that he was physically disabled. Of course, I knew he worked for the organization that dealt with such things. But I did not expect him to belong to that group.

It is an issue that most of us do not even pay attention to. We do not have time for disabilities in today’s world.

Towards the end of the conversation, he mentioned that it was really nice I was doing this story and bringing people’s attention to this issue, which needs addressing.

Why was I touched? Because he reminded me of how important my job is… that I do make a difference in some small way or the other. And there are people who are capable of inspiring you, who overcome challenges and obstacles everyday and manage a perfectly normal life.

Maybe we expect people with disabilities to be a particular way… We are steeped in our mindsets that we forget to look beyond what appears to be the picture.

There have been several comments the past few days about how the media did a horrible hatchet job on the CWG. Is it true? Maybe not completely. But somewhere, every television reporter gets caught up in the pressure of delivering news 24/7. You need to fill in airspace and you need to get that edge. So you use  bigger and better adjectives than the previous report and the whole thing gets blown out of proportion.

It is an evil world out there, and money is the bottomline. I refuse to believe the media is corrupt but our integrity is somewhat compromised by the advertising revenues. Yes, we all watched the movie Page 3 and there is some amount of truth in it. But the thing is… every person who signed up to be a reporter has some idealism in them. At least when we start out. We are all idealists who are brutally abused by the system, or by what we see, and we choose to either go bitterly cynical, or simply say ‘screw it’ and give the people what they want.

The real news sometimes gets lost in the sensationalism. You know the “shock news” thing now. But we get the news. There is always a Tehelka, a Watergate. But to keep the public’s attention – which is more attuned to Rakhi Sawant’s thumkas and gossip, we need to add the mirch  masala. It sucks. It is also reality. It also isn’t right.

I cannot say which way it will finally go. Will shares dictate the bottomline of news? Maybe. But I do know that as long as there are organizations like Reuters, New York Times, and to an extent, some Indian newspapers like The Hindu, journalism will survive. And there is always a streak of ego and integrity in us that will not allow us to go completely overboard. And if we do, there are always the tons of new journos that graduate every year. So, limited their powers might be, but we’ll have good news till the cynicism takes them over.

And then there are some who weather it all to become legends like Khuswant Singh. And some who end up with a cloak of popularity and disgust like Barkha Dutt. But being a journalist, we take it all with a glass of much-need whiskey.