“A journalist’s first obligation is to truth… Being impartial is not what journalism demands. The critical step in pursuing truth is not neutrality but independence.” This statement was made by Anubha Bhonsle, CNN IBN senior editor in her acceptance speech after receiving the Chameli Devi Jain award. The award recognises the work being done by women journalists in India.
Bhonsle’s name was shortlisted for the award along with other journalists like Neha Dixit, Priyanka Dubey and former Tehelka journalist Rana Ayyub. A jury comprising Jansatta Editor Om Thanvi, Indian Express columnist Coomi Kapoor and former chief secretary of Delhi Shailaja Chandra chose Bhonsle as the recipient because of her “sensitive and compassionate” coverage of the aftermath of the Muzaffarnagar riots, the encephalitis outbreak in Eastern Uttar Pradesh and the Uttarakhand floods.
Newslaundry interviewed Bhonsle about the state of journalism today, how deadlines become a hindrance in telling the stories that matter and whether impartiality and neutrality is the core principle of journalism.
1. You won the Ramnath Goenka award for your documentary ‘Paisa, Power and Politics’ and you have also been appreciated for your Citizen Journalist programme and your coverage of the Uttarakhand flood. What subjects do you most enjoy reporting on and why?
Anubha Bhonsle: It’s tough to bracket journalism as political, human interest or social. It’s often we journalists who make these classifications. ‘Paisa, Power and Politics’ was a work of reportage on the links between those who fight elections and those who fund it, it traversed a web of issues of all kind-political and social. I have often kept people at the centre of my stories and often this makes the work we do more meaningful and real – not just to us, but to those who consume it as well. Many stories, whether political or social, go back to where the money trail is. I learnt early on-everything that seems simple is complex and everything that is complex can be made simple.
2. You were the first journalist to reach Kedarnath during the Uttarakhand flood coverage. How does a reporter make sure he/she doesn’t “sell” tragedy, which often news channels tend to do in such situations?
Anubha Bhonsle: The “first” bit in times of tragedy is frankly a little disturbing but a reporter on the ground and to some extent a television reporter more than a print one, is never trying to come second. So yes I reached Kedarnath first, but it was a mix of luck, some quick thinking, weather gods being kind and just some good old persisting. I had very little time as the idea was to give the first independent account of the area and bring the first voices of people who had by then spent almost five days with very little food and water. In the face of tragedy and adversity, if one can just maintains one’s centre-calm, humanity and presence of mind, the thought of “milking a tragedy” does not arise. It was broadcast news’ unrelenting coverage in a tough terrain and very complex logistics that brought the full import of the tragedy. On a different note, in times like these the reporter has to make sure that they don’t become a liability for rescue teams etc which I thought was a crisis I saw at times.
3. Recently you shared a letter written to you by representatives of the Association Of The Victims Of Uphaar Tragedy lamenting how the judgment related to the case went unreported. How, as a journalist, do you strike a balance between stories that need to be told and stories that are more immediate and “news worthy”?
Anubha Bhonsle: Neelam and Shekhar Krishanmoorthy wrote that letter to me. I was honestly ashamed that we did not lay enough emphasis on a battle that has gone on for a decade and a half and a fight that is for a larger good. That balance you mention is an everyday battle, to try and move away from event-based coverage or discussions to real reportage. The latter is almost missing. In this particular case, we did cover the same but tragically it never went on air. I think politics and the Gujarat incident with Aam Aadmi Party took over that day. Frankly, I would have thought there was space for both. But that day we obviously made a wrong call.
4. When you look back at your journalistic career, do you ever feel you should have done a story but couldn’t do it for some reason?
Anubha Bhonsle: Many a times, a lack of time, a lack of understanding, not being able to reach the area, deadlines, just physical exhaustion have made me miss many stories that I have wanted to do or areas that I wanted to cover.
5. What do you think is wrong with news, particularly TV news in India today? And is there any one reason to feel optimistic about the future of this industry?
Anubha Bhonsle: Many things are wrong with the industry and with journalists. I make the following comments as observations and not judgments on individuals.
And I quote in parts from what I said in my acceptance speech.
1. A journalist’s first obligation is to the truth. Truth it seems is too complicated for us to pursue. We have forgotten that being impartial or neutral is not a core principle of journalism. Impartiality was never what was meant by objectivity. The critical step in pursuing truth is not neutrality but independence.
2. The media industry faces much scrutiny over corporate influence, dumbing down, noise. And I give them all importance, but even more to intellectual laziness and a lack of rigour in our work.
3. As journalists we know what is required to retain our independence. Except for causes that are directly related to our profession, we don’t join organisations or serve on boards. We don’t sign petitions. We report on protest marches, we don’t join them. By becoming journalists we have given up our right to be partisans.
4. There is much to feel optimistic about because there are many who realise all this and more.
6. Do you think the advent of social media is influencing the way mainstream media functions?
Anubha Bhonsle: It has greatly. Positive and negative. Social media has forced mainstream media to watch themselves more carefully. There is immediate feedback to good and bad. Social media has also helped mainstream media pick up stories which they had left on their way. The noise, the abuse and a lack of nuance along with a lack of understanding for processes bothers me.
7. Who among your contemporaries do you think are doing work you appreciate? Which news channels and newspapers/ magazines do you like watching and reading?
Anubha Bhonsle: I admire the work that’s being done by many freelancers, without the support structure of an organisation and institution.Neha Dixit for one. I admire my former colleague,Prarthana Gahilote and her incisive political reportage. Sreenivasan Jain and Truth vs Hype is what journalism is capable of each day-everyday. Same with Ravish Kumar on NDTV India. Both are friends and former colleagues and I admire their work greatly. I have always found great insights in my colleague Rupashree Nanda’s work. I have followed Rahul Pandita’s work for ages and it has helped me grow immensely as a journalist. I watch a lot of Al Jazeera and read almost all mainstream English papers and magazines. I find Caravan and the stories on Yahoo Originals very engaging.
8. Any advice for budding journalists?
Anubha Bhonsle: Work hard, remember everything that seems simple is complex and everything that seems complex is simple. And be fit.