Saturday, February 26, 2005

Ethics and the schooling we should've got

Being a small-town journalist can be a bit of a drag.

I've never been one myself, of course. But I have been in a city-based tabloid and I know how frustrating it can be to devote your mind and your pen entirely to the events and people of this one given area. If you're in Bombay, you cannot spend too much time being interested in, say, Marathwada or Vidarbha.

Can you imagine how much more annoying it is to have to report on the developments of a rural district?

Of course, all media can feel restrictive. Now that I work for a national news magazine, I could well sulk because I cannot report about the subcontinent, or Asia. Or the world. One might want to report about inter-galactic developments next... there's no end to wanting.

But being a journalist in small towns comes with its own unique set of problems.
In Raigarh, I was introduced to the small-town journalist's ultimate nightmare - landing a job with the 'franchise' media. Reporters told me that they not only write/record/shoot/investigate, they are also responsible for collecting advertisements for the newspapers they work for.

Jansatta, for instance, operates, not through a bureau but (the horror) a 'franchise'. It has but one functional journalist for the Raigarh edition.

This young man feels helpless as hell. "I need the job, but this is so unfair. How can I investigate or expose anyone if I have to go and take advertisements from their hands, the next day? Besides, at times like Diwali, I don't get any reporting done at all. I'm just a salesman, then."

Vinay, a stringer for Sahara Samay (MP/Chhatisgarh) , is better off. He told me, "I don't have to bring in ads, thankfully. But it is horrible for my friends in the newspapers. When we started out in the profession, we had promised each other 'no compromise, no withdrawl (from the truth)'. But how can we avoid compromise in this set-up? "

Incidentally, while in Raigarh, an annoying local businessman (claiming to be an activist of sorts) told me off. He said I was not a good reporter. "You're a nice girl, but you don't know how to investigate. It is no point asking questions. You should have let me take you to the collector's bunglow after working hours. You should have flattered him a little, bloated his ego and then pried his secrets out of him."

I pointed out that I had no hidden recording devices, and that I would not quote someone without his permission. I also pointed out that even if he did talk off the record, I couldn't quote him, since reporters have to protect their sources.

This revelation was met with blank stares and assorted 'oh!'s from all those in the room. Which reminded me of the journalism school I attended: XIC, Bombay.

The whole class unanimously resented one module - Ethics in Media. But now (sweet, sweet retrospect), I realize why all journalists need that module.

The pity of it is that we went through some nine months of 'ethics' training without absorbing too many ethics of the field ourselves. We weren't sent out into the field much. We were not taught to make up our own mind about where we would draw the line and how to fend off pressure, by asserting the right to have a conscience.

We were simply shown rather pathetic films about what disastrous consequences unethical reporting can have; one particular film was about a teenaged girl having sex with her teacher and then being chased by a local television reporter, who got the kid to admit it, on camera. The story was aired, and the kid attempted suicide...

Much pathos... but, frankly, the film had very little to do with teaching us the right way to go about making ethical decsions in the course of our work.

For instance, I don't chase kids who have sex with teachers. I might, if there's a question of rape. I might have been sent to cover such a story if a teacher had been arrested for statutory rape. But in the ordinary course, I have other strange, ethical decisions to make.

A friend of mine did take a conscience call, whilst she worked at the tabloid, despite intense 'performance' pressure from our editorial bosses. She had stumbled upon the story of a young girl who'd attempted suicide. Her mother went down on her knees, begging my friend not to write the report; the girl's sister was scheduled to get married in a few days. The wedding would probably be called off, if the groom's party found out.

My friend went back to office and said 'I don't have a story today'.
Of course, she got flak for it. A daily tabloid, especially an afternoon paper, has an insatiable appetite for this kind of story. Besides, not coming up with any story invites ire and penalization at KRA-time (whatever KRAs stand for... I'd much rather forget).

I had a similar decision to make about whether or not to cover a double-suicide:
A boy and girl were in love; they expected family opposition. They gulped down a bottle of poison, or phenyl together. They were in hospital... what business did I have, asking them the 'why, when, how' of it all?

However, I reported the story. In this particular instance, with not too much guilt. I had no clue whether I should have had any, though.

I'm not happy about this kind of report. But my bosses told me, the city wants to know! Suicides, rapes, scandals, corruption - people want it all. But is public curiosity a good enough reason?
And how much prying is too much prying? That is a question I don't have any answer to, even after five years in the profession.

I suppose I will just have to take conscience calls at each publication, each story. All the same, a manual of some sort - ground rules for journalists, maybe - would help. A manual you can quote from and use as a shield against misguided editors, maybe.

1 comment:

Janaki said...

In fact in retrospect, the module of ethics could use fast revamping. We have sooo many instances of media coverage in mumbai and even national media that we dont need to see any films made in the US that too more than a decade ago.

arre u can make the suggestion so why dont u? :)

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