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IMPACT OF OUR STORIES KEEPS US GOING

The 2017 Chameli Devi Jain award-winner speaks about her journalistic experiences, changes in newsrooms and more

On March 4, Uma Sudhir, NDTVs executive editor, was declared the winner of the prestigious Chameli Devi Jain award for 2017. Sudhir was recognised for a body of work spanning nearly three decades and covering topics ranging from politics, children, women and human rights to minority issues and rural distress – to name just a few.

In a statement, The Media Foundation, which has instituted the award, said: “Her incisive and analytical reports help create awareness of ground realities in various states. The jurors were impressed with the amount of work put into her stories through travelling, talking to people, examining underlying issues and finally conveying the stories with a humane touch.”

This year’s jury comprised journalists Rajdeep Sardesai, Ritu Sarin and Lalita Panicker. While Sudhir bagged the award, the jury also recommended The New Indian Express’ Suraksha P with an honourable mention.

Newslaundry interviewed Sudhir about the state of journalism today, the risks of being a journalist in India, changes in journalistic ethics over the years, the content of prime-time debates, press freedom and more.

You won the Laadli Media Award for 2011-12, a UN award for a story on fluorosis in Telangana’s Nalgonda and now the Chameli Devi Jain award. Are these awards just tokenism or appreciation for journalistic work?

The impact of stories that we report, in the form of change on the ground, policy revision, much-needed help to the subjects, are great rewards and incentives for journalists. That is what keeps us going despite the many odds. The recognition for good journalistic work that comes in the form of awards is certainly very important for professional journalists. Especially, when it comes from a peer group of highly respected professionals, it reinforces your commitment to the highest values of journalism. That your hard work is after all meaningful because it is being recognised by people you respect and look up to.

You have reported on topics ranging from politics and human rights to minority issues and rural distress. How does a journalist ensure that “distress” isn’t passed off as a TRP commodity? 

“Distress” is actually not a TRP commodity. There are too many depressing things happening all around us and it is, in fact, not easy to “package” them as interesting news items for your audience. That is, in fact, a challenge. What I have found is that stories in which you point out something positive, a way forward, are the most well-received.

For example, in a life-threatening crisis, when you report on a little thoughtful, generous gesture that somebody did, people respond to it… they want to help and they want to reach out with empathy to people who they feel deserve it. And my job as a journalist is often to respond empathetically to situations, instead of with pre-conceived notions or bias or cynicism. It is dangerous to get into that mindset actually.

What subjects do you most enjoy reporting on and why?

The best part of being a journalist is that no day is like any other. There is no scope for boredom. One day I am covering Kamal Haasan’s political rally, another day a Maoist encounter, a third day an inspiring story of a young gymnast like Aruna Reddy, then the rescue of bonded labour from a brick kiln… or in the middle of a cyclone … there is always so much happening. It is, not always, but most often up to me to choose where I will spend my time and resources and tell a story.

Sometimes there are big stories… like being the first TV journalist to reach Paradip during Odisha’s super-cyclone almost two decades ago… or Cyclone Hudhud in Vizag that devastated the city… that you want to be telling the stories from ground zero.

I enjoy meeting people, talking to them and knowing about them to tell their story… Every time, I am fascinated by the idea of how I am going to tell this story… and it is the subject and the person who actually leads you to it and every time it is an exciting new discovery.

For example, I did a documentary on Poorna, a tribal girl from Nalgonda who was the youngest at 14 to climb Everest. I was following her story and capturing it on camera, months before she achieved the feat. Her journey from a remote village where there is not even a primary health centre to the top of the world was by itself fascinating. But even more fascinating was the virtual revolution that was happening in the SC/ST community because of a fantastic officer who was making the best education and exposure available to the most underprivileged children and rewriting their fate within one generation.

How was I going to tell that story… of social dynamics being rewritten, the dreams of so many young people being shaped by a good officer and a supportive policy environment? Fascinating to storyboard a story like that.

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?

There are so many that actually fall through the gaps. Quite often, if we are receptive, we see and hear so many things happening around us. Journalism, especially TV journalism, is so rushed and so tiring that it is often not possible to do justice to everything that you want to do.

Sometimes you are glad you stopped to do something, just by chance, like an elderly couple who we found beating hot iron on the roadside. The image of an old woman using all her strength to beat hot iron was so stark and so striking that it told many stories. They became my “milestone” couple because the roadside milestone was their only address. They had no Aadhaar card, no identity as migrants. They were bringing up a semi-orphan grandchild. After our story, the child went to school (was kind of adopted by a couple who committed to support the child) and the elderly couple got much-needed help.

You’ve spent over two decades in TV journalism where the pressure of deadlines is immense. Have there been times when you felt that a story could have been done differently if not for meeting the deadline? Could you share an anecdote about a report/beat you found most challenging?  

Most investigative reports, which need to be backed by evidence on camera and with documents, are very challenging… especially because you are dealing with someone’s reputation and there is danger of legal action or a defamation suit if you cannot back up your report with hard evidence.

Rescue and sting operations that involve the mafia – whether it is the Bellary mining exposé we did (got an anti-corruption crusader award for it), trafficking mafia, drug cartels, sandalwood smugglers, bonded labour in brick kilns, children trapped by traffickers – come with physical risk. I have faced each of these situations and found it really challenging, almost got abducted, sometimes the risk may even seem foolish, but if you pull it off, you certainly feel smart and all the risk seems worth it.

What do you think is wrong with news, particularly TV news, in India today? 

The reporting is largely about sensational events, focussing on urban issues, with very little real journalism from the ground. Either because of resource constraints or because of the inability to challenge ourselves to go beyond reporting straight events and making them relevant and interesting to viewers, TV news seems to often miss the real stories and perspective. Despite the fact that TV is a visual medium where you need to capture stories on the ground, unfortunately, too much time is spent in the studio for discussion with a set of panellists who also seem like a closed group. Almost incestuous. While the agenda may be set by the management, it is reporters’ duty to constantly push to make the news more inclusive.

The content of prime-time debates has been reduced to shouting matches. What do you think is the reason for this? Is it media ownership or strain on financial resources that prevent the distribution of newsroom resources? 

Shouting matches that are unfortunately being equated with TRPs are the bane of good journalism. They have turned a sane discussion into a slanging match, a virtual circus, where you are almost appealing to the base instincts of audiences. Political ownership of news channels, whether covert or overt, certainly dictates a particular agenda to the newsroom. But even in professional newsrooms, resource constraint is a big issue.

With threats to the lives of journalists and constant attacks on press freedom, is there any scope for optimism? How can this be achieved? 

A free and vibrant media is very important for democracy to survive. Threats to the lives of journalists and constant attacks on press freedom, not just in the form of physical threats but in ways that constrain functioning, are really worrisome.

Of course, there are individual journalists and also media organisations that are professional, with integrity and commitment to journalistic ethics and values. They are our reason for optimism. Giving up is not an option. We need to fight as much as it takes to safeguard the independent journalistic space. The onus is not just on those within the media but civil society as well. The sooner we recognise this, the better. The responsibility of making people aware of it is also on the journalists -that our loss is a bigger loss for them.

Social media and technology are evolving to give us an opportunity to create new media platforms that may not be slavishly dependent on corporate or political capital. That, along with passionate protection of the diversity in media, standing up for good journalism within the fraternity in the face of direct threat, reiterating our faith in good journalism with awards like these, is one way of reclaiming our space.

Is there a journalist that you admire and would nominate, if given a chance, for next year’s Chameli Devi Jain award?

I admire the work of quite a few… but it would be unfair to choose one name over another based on mere perception coloured by bias rather than a rational scientific assessment… so would refrain from taking a name right now.

What are your thoughts on the representation of women in news panels and space given to the byline of women journalists in newspapers today?

Certainly needs better representation, not just in terms of gender but also in terms of geography and class.

How has journalism changed from the time you entered the industry to the present day?  

Technology has changed, the models have changed, the vehicles of news transmission have changed… but the basics of journalism have not changed – to be fair, balanced, investigative and credible.

Any advice for budding journalists?

No substitute for hard work.

This article was first published in Newslaundry.