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Monday, July 21, 2014

Do today's journalists face more risks than the journalists of, say, 20 years ago?

The answer, going by what Commits alumni have to say, is a loud NO.

But to go back to the beginning...

On Saturday, July 12, I sent out a request to our students who have worked, or are working, as journalists (my e-mail was based on what I was told by a fresher during a classroom discussion earlier that day):

Have you ever faced threats, especially threats to your life, from the likes of crooks, politicians, and business-owners while working as a journalist?

I am asking because during a discussion in class with the freshers today on the risks of journalism, I told them that, generally speaking, criminals in India don't target journalists. I told them the case may be different in, say, the US and Mexico, where ruthless drug cartels can put out hits on journalists. (Read this book to know more about the journalists who have died for the story in the world's most dangerous places.)

One of the students then asked me if newspapers would ever deliberately NOT give a reporter his or her byline for a controversial story, especially if giving the byline would mean the reporter could then receive threat calls.

My response was that a reporter who has got his or her hands on a controversial story WOULD INSIST on a byline. It would be a matter of pride.

At this point, a student from Kolkata narrated an incident involving her friend who works with The Times of India in Kolkata. This student said her friend was denied a byline by her editors because her story involved some wrongdoing by a few business-owners in the city. This friend was told that she would receive threats from the people concerned if they knew that she was the person who had written the story. The student told us her friend was in tears because she wanted a byline for this story, which, ultimately, was published without a byline. EVEN SO, this girl apparently received threat calls.

In all my life as a journalist, nothing of this sort has happened to my colleagues or me.

So I want to know from you now: Have the times changed so drastically? Do today's journalists face more risks than the journalists of, say, 20 years ago? Have you ever had the same experience as the young Kolkata journalist? Have you been denied a byline for a controversial story?

Please let me know.

Many thanks.

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AND HERE ARE THE RESPONSES I RECEIVED FROM OUR ALUMNI:

FROM PRIYALI SUR
Never.

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FROM ARUNIMA RAJAN
I was never denied a byline [when I was working with DNA in Bangalore]. But I had received threat calls from the secretary of a local MLA because I had written an article about his inertia when it came to addressing the civic problems in his constituency. The secretary also made a formal complaint to the editor and said that, in the days leading up to the elections, the newspaper should have behaved more responsibly.

Despite the threat, my boss supported me and said that this was a good sign, and that this was a reflection of the power of our article.

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FROM AYUSHMAN BARUAH
I have not received any such threats. In India, such threats are rare but not nonexistent.

CLOCKWISE FROM LEFT: ARUNIMA RAJAN, PRIYALI SUR, AYUSHMAN BARUAH, VARUN CHHABRIA, AND AYESHA TABASSUM.

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FROM AYESHA TABASSUM
Since the time I have been working I haven't encountered anything of this sort. Neither have any of my close journalist friends or acquaintances ever faced such a situation, though many have worked on controversial stories, including the CWG scam involving Congress bigwigs.

During that period I was with Times Now in Mumbai, working closely with senior producers who wanted to break the story which had taken almost seven months of legwork for the journalist: Navika Kumar. We were aware (only the team that was working closely on the story) that she was getting threat calls but that didn't stop her from going ahead and breaking it and being the face of the story.

In fact, from what I have seen at newspapers, including Deccan Chronicle and Bangalore Mirror, reporters want their bylines for all their stories, and if it is a controversial one they fight for it. Most editors encourage giving bylines for such stories, the reason being a controversial story would have required extra work on the reporter's part to ensure he/she has the facts checked and corroborated too. So all the more reason to give a byline.

Another instance is when AG (Arnab Goswami) apparently received a threat from a radical group when he was constantly following up on the 26/11 attacks. I was on leave for a few days and when I reported back at the office, I was stopped at the entrance by bouncer-lookalikes: huge men who wanted to inspect my bag. That's when someone told me that after that e-mail threat, the channel had to station guards at each entry point to the office. Also, I was told, AG would personally go to his son's school to pick him up to avoid any unfortunate incident. But even then he didn't give up focusing on the story; neither did the management stop him from anchoring fearlessly.

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FROM VARUN CHHABRIA
Working in the arts/culture/tech fields, as I do at Time Out Bengaluru, this is never a problem. I have never met a journalist who complained about such an issue here.

At Time Out, as well as at Books & More, my previous employer, I've never seen a piece go without a byline. Unless it's partly or wholly a promotional feature which was rewritten to meet our editorial standards but is originally a PR-related piece. In such cases, the writer wouldn't want a byline anyway. :)

If the Kolkata story is true, it is quite sad for the reporter to not get her byline. If this is the case, can the reporter not insist on a byline, regardless of her personal safety? She was threatened anyway. She shares a professional relationship with the newspaper and can insist on a byline despite her editors' conservative approach. In fact, getting her byline seems to offer more security in this case because if something does happen to her, won't the prime suspects in this case be those very business owners?

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FROM NEETHU REGHUKUMAR
I have never had an experience like the Kolkata journalist's. When I had done stories on medical negligence by corporate hospitals in Bangalore, I never received any threats. I feel the reporter and even the editors insist on a byline for controversial stories because, as you have explained, it is a matter of pride. I remember, at Bangalore Mirror once, when a front-page special story appeared without a byline, the editor was furious. Bylines are a way for the reporter and the newspaper to claim a story and ensure its impact.

What I experienced was that when we did controversial stories such as those related to, say, hospitals, or builders, the people concerned would try to call you back to explain their side of the story. This has happened to me. Some doctors even try to call up the bosses and talk to them in an attempt to pressure them. But at Bangalore Mirror, none of this worked as we have always carried such stories. Of course, it goes without saying that when controversial stories are involved, the editors make sure that all facts are correct and have been verified and that we have the relevant documents or quotes to support our story.

Sometimes PR executives connected with the concerned organisation would call up and request the editor not to publish a particular story. I experienced this when I was working with Deccan Chronicle in Trivandrum. But, in Bangalore, though PR officials did call us up to give us the organisation's version, they would not normally ask us to kill a news report. However, I remember that I once had to speak harshly to the PR executive of a hospital who asked me to kill a particular story.

When we work on stories that expose wrongdoing at corporate hospitals, sometimes the officials indirectly hint at taking legal action. But since the stories I had written were backed up by the relevant documents and quotes, we never had any legal problems; in fact, we never had to publish even rejoinders. Of course, since journalists always try to give all sides of a story, we would make sure that the hospital's version was also included.

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FROM ANKITA SENGUPTA
At Deccan Herald, only the senior reporters work on controversial stories. If it is a negative story, they try to balance it by giving the company's perspective, but even then, our reporters are encouraged to include their bylines.

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FROM PINJALA KUNDU
I have never experienced anything like this. I have never been denied a byline; nor do I know of anyone being denied one because the story was controversial. In fact, in my experience at The Times of India, I have heard about people breaking stories that have changed their lives for good.

CLOCKWISE FROM BOTTOM LEFT: PINJALA KUNDU, SHERRY M. JACOB-PHILLIPS, TAPASYA MITRA MAZUMDER, ANKITA SENGUPTA, AND NEETHU REGHUKUMAR.
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FROM TAPASYA MITRA MAZUMDER
Our editors have our backs all the time and there is no reason for young journalists to be afraid.

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FROM SHERRY M. JACOB-PHILLIPS
I received threats just once when I did my first sting operation with Mid Day in Bangalore. I went with a hidden camera and dictaphone and pretended to be a student who wanted to lodge an FIR (First Information Report) about her missing mobile phone. Of the six police stations that photographer Omprakash Parker and I visited, we found only one (Bharatinagar) with responsive police officers. The rest accused me of being careless, or a liar, and even tried to scare me by telling me that my parents and I would have to make endless court visits if I went ahead with the FIR.

But Mid Day didn't back down. We decided to publish photographs of the errant police officers and their names in a report that carried my byline. (Of course, since we had recorded all the conversations, we had the evidence to back up our story.) Two police officers were suspended after the story was published. The following day, there were a couple of threat calls; my colleague Kavita took care of them since I couldn't understand Kannada. I believe she gave them a fitting reply. :). After that day, I have never received threats for any story I have done.

As for bylines, apart from the stories published in The Hindu, where I worked as an intern (they never allowed interns to have bylines those days), I have gotten bylines for the rest of my work.

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 A (SLIGHT) TWIST IN THE TALE

On Tuesday, July 15, Disha Bhandari, the fresher who first talked about this issue in class on Saturday, put me in touch with the friend who wrote the story for which she was denied a byline. 

Chandni Doulatramani, who came across on the phone as a very personable young woman used to expressing her views in a forthright manner, told me that the newspaper concerned was Hindustan Times, NOT The Times of India.

Chandni also clarified that she was an intern at the time, having completed barely a week with the paper. And she explained that her report was about a group of hawkers going on the rampage to protest against the opening of a Spencer's Mall outlet in Kolkata in July 2008 (see her story alongside, bylined "HT Correspondent").

That does put a different spin on things. For one thing, Hindustan Times was a relatively new paper in Kolkata at the time of the incident; perhaps the paper did not have enough seasoned journalists at the top to assure Chandni that such incidents are common, especially in the cities, and there was no need to be overly concerned about "threats" from the hawkers.

The more relevant reason for Chandni being denied a byline could be a rule that interns are not given bylines (Sherry-Mary Jacob has talked about this in her response above). But Chandni told me that her bosses at the paper told her that they were not giving her a byline because they were worried about "what the hawkers would do to her". And Chandni says they told her the next day that there "some calls to the office asking for the name of the reporter" who had written the story.

As will be clear from the feedback given to me by our alumni, journalists yearn to work on important stories and fight to get bylines. They are not cowed down by "threats". And newspaper bosses are willing to back their staff to the hilt.

So what happened with Chandni at Hindustan Times appears to be an aberration.

Sadly, those who do not realise this was an aberration, for example, parents of young women who want to become journalists, will try their best to discourage their children if their impression is that journalism is a dangerous business. Yes, journalism can be risky, but, on the whole, it is safer to be a journalist in India than in many other countries, both developed and developing.

AND A FOLLOW-UP E-MAIL FROM CHANDNI THAT CLARIFIES HER POSITION AND CLEARS UP SOME OF THE CONFUSION IN MY MIND ABOUT THE SEQUENCE OF EVENTS AND THE STAND TAKEN BY HER EDITORS:
I sent Chandni a draft version of this post after speaking with her on the phone. I wanted to be sure I had got down correctly what she had told me. And I also wanted to give her an opportunity to review what I had written as well as what the alumni had to say. The next day, July 16, I received an e-mail from her, an edited version of which is given below: 

I love the account. It's a beautiful narration. However, it would be great if certain changes could be incorporated.

CHANDNI DOULATRAMANI
1. I got over 40 bylines for my stories as an intern with HT. Just not for this particular one. [That was] because this made it to the front page and they were not sure someone in my capacity could completely be trusted with the facts. I could send you multiple articles with my byline, and even though this was my first internship, my editors were very generous with giving us bylines. They always, always gave it whenever deserved. Just this one time, after multiple discussions, they decided against it, for which my editor even apologised to me.

2. Everyone working in my team had work experience ranging from three to 15 years. It wouldn't be fair to say they were not seasoned.

3. "...what the hawkers would do to her": I would like it if not used in quotes. I do not remember the exact words since this incident happened more than five years ago.

I hope these changes can be incorporated. Please let me know if you need anything else. Will be more than willing to help.

  • I am very grateful to Chandni for taking the trouble to respond so promptly. I also learnt from her e-mail that, after her stint with HT, she worked with CNN-IBN in their Noida and Mumbai offices. Her first paid job was with Times Now in Mumbai, where she worked as an on-air entertainment reporter interviewing celebrities. After that she joined Reuters where she worked for more than two years. Chandni is now a communications executive with Styletag. And she also publishes a very professional fashion blog. Check it out here.

SO, IT SEEMS, ALL IS WELL THAT ENDS WELL. THIS WHOLE CONVERSATION WITH THE FRESHERS, WITH OUR ALUMNI, AND WITH CHANDNI DOULATRAMANI HAS SET TO REST, I THINK, ANY CONCERNS YOUNGSTERS MIGHT HAVE REGARDING THE RISKS OF BEING A JOURNALIST IN INDIA.


Having said that, I would urge you to read these posts: 
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REACTIONS:

Here's a blog post by a colleague, Mike Shanahan: http://underthebanyan.wordpress.com/. Environment journalists are at huge risk.
Marianne de Nazareth
Senior Journalist

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I think it’s hard to make the argument that risks have grown, except in conflict zones where more journalists enter these days. Direct threats of violence are rare, even for reporters covering the Mumbai underworld. What has, doubtless, increased is a variety of subtle and not-so-subtle pressures ranging from marketing to special interest groups, and “self-censorship” (of the kind that Rushdie accuses many writers of indulging in) in terms of simply avoiding covering a range of subjects and issues.
Balamurali Krishna
Senior Journalist

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I must say that today's journalists certainly face more risks.

Let's not forget that Mid-Day crime and investigations editor, J. Dey, was shot dead on June 11, 2011, in Mumbai [by motorcycle-borne sharpshooters].

Also, back in July 2005, after Mid Day reporter Kashif Khusro did an investigative story on the then CM, Vilasrao Deshmukh's "silly and awful" efforts to distribute food items and other necessities to communities after the 26/7 Mumbai deluge. The front page story in the second edition of Mid Day was headlined: "Silly CM". Do you know what happened the very next day? A bunch of partymen/goons (roughly about 25 of them) stormed into the Mid Day newsroom and vandalised it. They kept demanding to see Kashif while destroying our computers and shredding copies of the newspaper; they even set some of the copies on fire before the police arrived on the scene and took them away. Kashif was not in the office at that time. He was later asked to go on leave for a few days till things cooled down.

I've been an entertainment reporter all my life, primarily reporting on movie stars, directors, and film producers. Once, during my stint with Mumbai Mirror in 2007, I had written a 200-word report on the eerie resemblance (not physical, but style, diction, way of greeting, etc.) between a top film star and a debutant actor. It led the debutant actor's father, a leading producer himself, to call me and ask if I was on a mission to ruin his son's career even before it had been launched. On saying that this was exactly the sentiment of the film industry because his son was imitating the top film star quite a bit, he said, before hanging up on me, that he knew where I lived and I should fear for my safety!

In 2006, another leading film producer happened to call me at 7 in the morning to ask for fellow colleague and then Mid Day film critic Mayank Shekhar's address because he had ripped apart his latest film. I politely refused to give him Mayank's address and requested him to speak to him directly if he had a problem with it.

I can cite several other examples and instances when journalists have been threatened or physically assaulted. I just don't think it's accurate to put out on The Reading Room that the job is devoid of risks of physical harm.
Commitscion Sandipan Dalal
 Entertainment Editor, Femina

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Very interesting to see how fierce young journalists are about bylines.The flip side: have a discussion on how dead easy it is to get a byline now. Even routine stories are dutifully and routinely tagged. Does this cheapening of the byline affect quality?
Carol Andrade
Senior Journalist