The humanity of journalism

The humanity of journalism

Eric Loo in Malaysiakini on Jul 2, 08

Two-thirds of the world’s poor live in Asia. But a random check on mainstream media contents shows the poor are starkly invisible.  

It’s not for the lack of journalistic spirit that the poor are rendered invisible in our media. It’s the editorial system, driven by profits or beholden to governments, that’s prostituting the traditions of a once noble craft. I’m reminded of a story in the New Internationalist of how a Burmese journalist tries daily to make the best of her situation despite the odds.  

She writes:
“I love to write news stories but I hate the censor board. The censor board vets our stories and they always tell us to publish government policy and propaganda articles, week after week. My boss has two faces. One face is all smiles for the censor board, the other grimaces at us. I think many journal publishers must be similar to him. They all want to hold on to their business and so are self-interested, always ready to compromise, to give in so as to survive.”

This ought to inspire journalists in less adverse circumstances to do better than the vanity lifestyle journalism that dominates the market. We need journalists who’d challenge that which is the existing content structure – status quo journalism – to that which journalism ought to be, transformative.   

For the past week, I’ve been chatting online with a group of Asian journalists on reporting about poverty. What would it take to return ‘poverty issues’ to the front-page, I asked. All ten of them, enrolled in the MA program at the Asian Center for Journalism, Ateneo de Manila University in the Philippines, recognise there’s no easy answer.

One says her ‘finance’ beat often isolates her from ‘poverty’ issues. Another cites space limitation. An agency reporter blames his bureaucratic editors who are more concerned with serving the government than reporting for the poor.  

Such is the sad state of journalism in parts of South-east Asia.  

Commercial media, structurally more attuned to the fancies of the rich and famous, are breeding the socially insignificant contents we see today.  

One of the few transformative journalists I had the privilege of meeting is Palagummi Sainath (photo), rural affairs editor at The Hindu, author of Everybody Loves a Drought, and recipient of the 2007 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Journalism. I asked him, for my book-in-progress, about his experience in telling the stories of the poor in India:


The interview 

Eric Loo: You have consistently criticised conventional journalism’s “service of power” in its coverage of the drought-stricken states in India.  Evidently, this “service of power”, which often gives the last word to the authority, is the modus operandi of journalists. How can journalism educators teach their students to go beyond this modus operandi?
I think we need to make a distinction here between journalists and media. Neither is a homogenous group (though the latter moves rapidly in that direction). There have always been journalists who did not and do not believe in the service of power – those who cut through the hypocrisy of pomp and stated the uncomfortable.

I’ve always thought that the boy who said: “The Emperor has no clothes!” and who pointed to a pathetic but powerful moron who was simply starkers was one of the fine early journalists. He dragged into the public domain what others knew but would not say.

Once he put it there, it made life simpler for everyone except the Emperor.
Journalism teachers are not a homogenous group either, as I can attest, having been one myself for over 20 years in schools in this country and elsewhere. There are those who squawk from textbooks (mainly establishment American books), rattling off principles that were never followed or applied to the powerful.

There are those with a total emphasis on craft, teaching unburdened by moral responsibility.  There are those who have taught their students to think and reason and question, who emphasise the ‘why’ of it.  And some who also teach their students by personal example. So there are different kinds of teachers.
Journalism teachers have to decide who they wish to make their students responsible to – readers and people, or bosses and balance sheets. All this happens in a context.  As corporate power tightens its grip on the profession, I’d like to see us make the students more and more subversive, undermining of the established order.
This April (2006) in India, the number of farmers committing suicide in just one region, Vidharbha, crossed 400. This was very poorly covered. Very few national media groups sent their reporters to this region.

But they sent well over 500 journalists to cover the Lakme Fashion Week. And also gave phenomenal space to the fact that the Sensitive Index (SENSEX) of the Mumbai Stock Exchange crossed the 11,000 figure (it has since soared past 12,000 – and the farm suicides in Vidharbha past 500).

This is the Great Disconnect between mass media and mass reality I spoke of. Journalism teachers should realise they are training their wards within this context.

Great journalists are dissidents 

I think they all need to point out a fundamental truth to their students: the greatest journalists have been dissidents. Thomas Paine, Mahatma Gandhi, Ambedkar, you make the list. How many establishment hacks would figure on your list? The establishment hacks are best remembered as high priests or soothsayers.

Who remembers those who railed against Paine? Who can recall the names of the editors of the pro-colonial stream of the press who raved and ranted against Gandhi?

In your lecture at Trinity College in Connecticut 2002 (you were then the first McGill Fellow in International Studies at the college),  you were quoted in the campus newsletter Mosaic (April 2002) as saying: “When I’m covering poverty as a journalist, I go and live in the communities I’m writing about.  If I can’t see the issues through their eyes, there’s no point going and perpetuating old stereotypes about poverty.” 

This approach marks your journalism, for instance in the story  “The bus to Mumbai” () (The Hindu, 01 June 2003) where you joined a group of migrant villagers from Mahbubnagar district on a bus in 46 degree heat. How did this immersive form of reporting evolve in your work?
I wouldn’t like to pretend this conclusion was the outcome of some sublime intellectual process. It seems to me fairly simple – where you stand is often determined by where you’re sitting.

If you have not been in the hut that has no electric power, not a single bulb, how will you understand why the children in that home can never do well in studies? It’s not important to merely ‘see’ the hut, but to be there when there is no power.  

I think it’s a bit fraudulent to write knowingly about their lives if you have never done so. Even if you do it several times and not every single time, you’ll be astonished at the depth it brings to your perceptions.

For instance, we know that the average rural woman in India spends a third of her life on three chores: fetching water, firewood and fodder. But ‘knowing’ this is one thing.

Walking with her, trying to live her day as she does – would that be the same thing? Try it once. It will give you an insight into the quality of her life that you will never forget, and that will inform your work thereafter.
Commenting on your Socratic teaching methods at Trinity, one of your students quoted you as saying, “Just having different opinions is not good enough for me. I’m not learning from your opinion if I don’t engage.” Do you see this principle of engagement lacking in the way that journalists traditionally report about poverty and social inequities?
By severely limiting the spectrum of opinion in your paper or on your channel, you can evade engaging gigantic realities. The US media are the best example of this.

They steadily kept out any opinion (even from Europe, let alone the Third World) that undermined the case for war in Iraq. It’s been called a cordon sanitaire (quarantine line)  by some analysts.  Remember that even with Vietnam, American audiences were the last to know what was going on.  They promoted the work of journalists consciously planting stories coming out of the White House and Pentagon that led their nation to invade Iraq.

Later, they will give themselves prizes and awards for ‘breaking’ stories that show why the decision to go to war was wrong, and pat themselves on the back in an exercise that gives hypocrisy a bad name.

Demolished 84,000 homes 

Journalists are not a homogenous group. There are good ones and bad ones like in any other profession. Yet, the demands of good journalism are difficult to meet given the milieu they work in, the demands of the media outlets they work for.

They’ll get any amount of space to cover a natural disaster. But very little to report the devastation wrought by human agency. The tsunami in India destroyed 30,300 houses in the coastal town of Nagapattinam in the state of Tamil Nadu. That was its worst destruction on that score and was, of course widely reported.

The same week, the government of Maharashtra demolished 84,000 homes of poor people in Mumbai’s slums. That was barely reported at all.  There were actually newspapers that told their reporters to lay off from covering that event.

Mind you, 84,000 homes in a week (including  some 10,000 on a single day) make the Israeli Army in the West Bank look like amateurs. Yet, it was not worthy of reporting for most media.
How can journalists better apply this principle of engagement in reporting more abstract issues such as globalisation or corruption?
By telling their stories through the lives of people. And, by taking up the far greater challenge of reporting the process, not just the events.

It is actually relatively easy to report events, especially spectacular ones like fires, earthquakes, etc. Reporting processes demands a lot more hard work. Digging into things, investigating things, asking difficult questions. Process reporting doesn’t stop with ‘what’ –  it digs into ‘why.’ Yet, to my mind there is enormous drama in processes.   

If you take up that challenge you’ll find reporting harder, but far more satisfying. Far more educative and sensitising.  It touches and deepens your own humanity. It teaches you a lot more.

The more you work through the lives of people, the more depth your reporting – and your intellect – will achieve. Of course, the research and knowledge of data are vital. But so is actual engagement with the lives of ordinary people.

In your work, you travel widely, meet and live with people in different circumstances.  Reading your stories, I feel the people’s state of despondency.  How do you cope with the sense of frustration and helplessness, which creeps in occasionally?

I actually have tremendous faith in the capacity of ordinary people to find their way – and ours. That’s why I do this work.

This country was not liberated from British imperialism by the elites. It won its freedom because of the heroic struggles and sacrifice of poor peasants, workers and other downtrodden people.  
Two years ago (2004), the 600 million strong electorate of this country gave a stinging rebuke to its rulers, thrashing them at the hustings for following policies that hurt and devastated the poor.

That election result made the media look silly.

Astonishing resillience of ordinary Indians

Their predictions, opinion polls, exit polls et al, came a cropper. So yes, the rural poor may be in a terrible state, indeed they are. But I also see that it is they, not the chattering classes, who keep democracy alive in this country.

It’s true, the stories on farm suicides indicate despondency. People take their own lives only as a very final step.

However, I am also inspired each time I step into the countryside, by the astonishing resilience of ordinary Indians. For every farmer who takes his life, there are millions who don’t, but who struggle on against incredible odds. Odds which you or I would prefer to run away from. So I gain strength from that. There is plenty one can do to alleviate the sufferings of the poor and the disenfranchised.
Your stories are characterised by ethnographic research, a strong sense of history, acute observations, a sharp focus on the grassroots, and listening to what they say.  Indeed, it’s hard to draw the line between telling the story as you see it, and telling the story as the victims experience it.  Is this a fair observation?
Yes and no. You always have to see it as the people experience it. And I’d hesitate to label them ‘victims.’ I would also not like to suggest they are always passive because they are not. What you do is to try and give their experience context and coherence.

If you meet those who have been part of my stories, you will find they are aware of what I have written and agree with it. Agree that it is a fair summing up of what they’ve told me and of their lived experience.

That can never be perfect, but it aims to get close. What’s very hard is not to get crushed by some of those experiences  — which could be horrendous. Maybe that’s where your point gains relevance. That experience can be so overwhelming as to sometimes hurt the larger perspective. That line you’re talking of then makes sense: the ability to retain perspective.
Sometimes it cuts both ways. I have visited hundreds of households that have seen farmers’ suicides and have conducted very lengthy interviews and studies there. At one level, it gives the work far more depth and solidity.

At another, it just kills those of us who do it. It destroys you, makes you sick physically and emotionally. Those of us doing it feel trapped. On the one hand, the story has to be told – and privileged above Lakme Fashion Week. On the other, it overwhelms you personally.

At one level it enhances our understanding to do detailed work on it. On the other, we begin to drag ourselves to the next household. So it does deepen perspective.

But it also confronts you with an experience, which, however widespread, is highly personal for that family. You have to retain the perspective that this highly personal tragedy is also a part of something much higher.

How does one do justice to both? That’s the challenge.

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