Among a handful of people who helped me understand the true meaning of putting pen to paper and the dimensions of enquiry were professor H.Y Sharada Prasad at the Indian Institute of Mass Communication (IIMC) in New Delhi (India), professor Elie Abel at Stanford University in California (USA) and a Swiss officer working with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Geneva. The former were intellectual giants – the first was a civil servant, journalist and media adviser to Indian Prime Ministers Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi and Abel was a veteran American journalist who had served as Dean of Columbia School or journalism, worked with NBC and New York Times and shared a Pulitzer that added to his many accomplishments.
The first two were very different kinds of people but they had one striking thing in common. It was their remarkable capacity to mentor and encourage the curious with rigour and a light hand. Judgment was rare (Abel was stern at times) and even more rare was any reference to their work as examples or the needless display of the full strength of their knowledge and experience.
Read everything, everything you can lay your hands on, even telephone books, flyers that land in your post box, Sharada Prasad would say. Your story is good when you can read it in print and own it the next day, Abel told me once. Look beyond the obvious – imagine what is and what is being told the third told me. It also meant could I call my source back with the conviction that I had not fiddled with trust.
The third gentleman who must remain anonymous shared an interesting piece of information with me 30 years ago. Whenever the ICRC conducted prison visits, he said, the team would always include an architect. Countries always hid prisoners during international visits and architects could tell which parts remained hidden. Most countries did not know this ruse and subsequent visits would help the ICRC to prod in the directions that remained out of bounds. In other words, imagine the dimensions and don’t settle for what is shown.
Today technology and search engines have made all of the above obsolete – or have they? Do we as journalists comprehend issues faster and write better? Does our knowledge grow because it’s all there at the end of a click? The answer is no and the problem is two-fold. One is the pressure of technology that pushes newsrooms to work at the speed of lighting. We in the media live under the illusion that if we submit data to technology companies they will tell us the truth in areas as varied as economics to public health or even road transport. Such is the dependence on search engines that we have turned uncritical.
The second has to do with incomprehension and shabby work wrapped in a by-line from the word go. When your first story carries your name, the second, the third and all the others, the sense of entitlement overtakes the requirement of duty. Often, the only fall back to cross check is technology. Sources, as required by good journalism fall by the wayside – the machine, is smarter than the human being. In fact, the simple principle of at least two independent sources per fact seems like a ridiculous exercise. I learnt recently that young journalists today do not read their copy before sending it off to the desk. They expect the desk to do their job. The desk, in turn, looks to search engines for verifications and the circle of illusion is complete.
As I look back on how the words of Sharada Prasad, Abel, and the ICRC officer helped me first as a journalist, then as a diplomat and later as the head of my own company in Switzerland, one thing is clear. They were all rigorous, but the rigour sprung not from a spot called ego but from a commitment, to be honest, to themselves and their metier.
It is my view that if you cannot imagine, your thinking capacity can be predictable. If you cannot think, your creative and enquiry capacity is dented. If you cannot imagine, think, create and enquire, chances are that when you write you risk being neither concise nor crisp and certainly not cohesive. I have written often that language matters because it influences thinking. If you don’t listen to yourself for a start and apply basic ethics to your work, how can you hope to reach out to others?
These issues come up regularly as the oxymoron that is “fake news” struts about as a giant that must be slayed diverting valuable time from journalists – time that can be put to better use by say, reading. In a recent conversation with Keshav who is a cartoonist for The Hindu by profession and a painter by choice, we found ourselves heading back to the same spot that is basic journalism training. That simply means the capacity to read and write well in any language. Yes, search engines are important tools but they cannot give you your leads, anchor and recall paragraphs (both the journalist and the machine fail here) and certainly not cohesion and clarity. Just like an artist imagines, enquires, creates and relentlessly pursues perfection, so do good journalists who refine themselves with words they string together with relentless discipline so it becomes second nature. Whether it is investigation journalism, a commentary, prose or an editorial, standards are standards.
Media is a many-splendored beauty if you understand the craft and language, yours for a start. Journalists, whether they are with print, radio, television or with web-based entities, are storytellers. In the telling is the conviction and the courage. In the courage is the force of enquiry. And in the enquiry is the duty and respect towards the audience, not a wild goose chase towards some imagined sense of power. Journalism is an excellent profession – keep the ego out.