Journalists expose more of themselves than they realise

If we don’t learn to empathise and be open, we’ll always be limited by our personal experience and biases

ByMadhu Trehan
Journalists expose more of themselves than they realise
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Please read the Secret Olympic Diaries.

Reading it four years ago, I laughed at the brilliance of it. I read it again four years later. What does it tell me today? That not only is there an inherent impossibility of objectivity in journalism, subjectivity is its backbone. A writer lays himself bare and exposes his/her “self” every time she writes, even though she is not writing about herself.

Milan Kundera wrote, “When one artist talks about another, he is always talking (indirectly, in a roundabout way) of himself, and that is what’s valuable in his judgement”. And so with journalists. When they write about farmers, the economy, education, poverty, review books, theatre, cinema, they are bringing in their own worldview between the lines – their schooling, their hurt, their disappointments, the bullying and ostracisation they suffered. It also could include their successes, achievements, privileges, which also could bring what is called in a mostly derogatory way – elitism. Is it possible for a journalist to write on a subject that excludes all that her being is – her accumulated experiences, her raw wounds and sensitivities? Can a reporter be objective when covering a rape story if he/she has had personal experience of rape? Can a person be objective if he has seen his father beat his mother, when covering a story on domestic violence?

It is impossible to block out all conditioning and experience when a journalist covers a story. Why do I look with scepticism at the claims made by a Kashmiri family that their son was an innocent bystander killed by security forces? Do we really expect someone to say, “Yes, my son was pelting stones and participating in a violent protest”?

My reaction to Kashmir coverage is influenced by my experience. Once, our Newstrack team was behind a bus on the outskirts of Srinagar. The bus was stopped and shot at by terrorists and many on the bus were injured. The Newstrack team filmed interviews of the injured all of whom related what the terrorists had done, which was, shot the passengers at random. The Newstrack team then followed the injured to a hospital, hoping for longer interviews and filmed the same people. Those people who had blamed the terrorists just after the incident, changed their account to, “It was the Indian army that shot at us”.

So now, obviously, when I get a quote from a victim’s relative in Kashmir, I simply cannot take it at face value. But it is highly likely that a reporter who is covering Kashmir for the first time will accept such statements in good faith without any distrust. Also one who has witnessed military excesses in his or her community will always be distrustful of the uniform. Could any of them be accused of being “biased”?

Can journalists from privileged backgrounds comprehend and write about rural issues of which they have no personal experience? They could and they do, but it is only when you have grown up watching your father staring up at a cloud free, clear sky in scorching heat waiting for rain, day after day, that you write in a way that your message between the lines, is as important as the words. Does a journalist have to go through every experience to report on it? That’s impossible. But a journalist’s ability to transcend his own DNA and report with empathy makes good journalism.

Twenty years ago very few aspiring journalists came from villages and small towns. At Newstrack, we hired them because, with their swift Hindi and rooted as they were in their communities and regions, they got the best stories. They understood. They ‘got it’. When they were hesitant about their fluency in English, I told them, “You bring the stories and I will write them in English.” I would not want them to ignore their ancestral sensibilities. It would bring extraordinary richness and depth to their stories. Today, many of them are successful anchors and correspondents in news organisations. Although they have thanked me publicly for the start I gave them, saying no one would hire reporters not fluent in English, it is I who must thank them for educating me about areas that I knew about but could not feel. With and through them, I got to experience that my background did not let me access.

The kernel of good writing then must come from being able to go beyond one’s DNA. Can Arundhati Roy wipe out being brought up by a single mother? Can Pratap Bhanu Mehta bury his Oxford and Princeton education? Can Ramachandra Guha drop Doon School? Can P Sainath ever leave Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) behind?

In many professions, there are those who rise above their background to adjust to new positions. But there are some who can’t. It boils down to the willingness and capacity to change and evolve. A good journalist has to be on a constant learning curve, dropping what doesn’t work any more and absorb new realities. Journalists my age could feel embarrassed that people young enough to be our children are teaching us new technicalities and questioning your thinking. There is no shame in ignorance in a new environment and it doesn’t matter who is teaching you as long as you are willing to learn. If veteran journalists clung to nostalgia we’d still be banging out copy on old typewriters, with white ink erasers and going to libraries for research. The sheer utility of the new technologies and relaxed language has liberated us from antiquated work practices. But, does it wipe out the antiquated subterranean subconscious of your background?

A fine example of someone attempting to go beyond his elite background is Rahul Gandhi. Let’s just say, he tried. He obviously does not have the capacity to go all the way. Eating in a Dalit home does not make up for the fact that you surround yourself with Western educated techies to run your election campaign. Could he have chosen a dharti sé judda hua youth from each state to guide him on key issues? Yes, but he did not because his comfort level was with those who mirrored him. Likewise, it is to the detriment of news organisations that they hire journalists who mirror management and a certain class. It is not enough to be the change you want to see. It is important to surround yourself with people unlike your background, if they embody the change you want to see.

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