Journalists who happen to be women

BY JAYA BHATTACHARJI| IN Media Practice | 15/05/2012
These essays are a brilliant mapping of the range of issues that have been tackled and publicised by women journalists over three decades.
This behind-the-scenes documentation is a must read for all, says JAYA BHATTACHARJI in a book review.
Making News, Breaking News, Her Own Way: Stories by winners of the Chameli Devi Jain Award for outstanding women media persons
Edited by Latika Padgaonkar and Shubha Singh
Pages 324 (Paperback)
Year of Publication 2012
Publisher Tranquebar, an imprint of Westland Ltd., New Delhi
Price Rs. 250
The Chameli Devi Jain Award was instituted by the Media Foundation in 1980. It was partly endowed by her family including her son, L.C.Jain. She was a “simple housewife who joined the freedom struggle in Delhi, exemplifying values of independence, courage, and dedication”. The first award was given in 1982 for work done in the previous year. Entries were adjudicated by an independent jury whose verdict was final. When it was first instituted, women journalists were just beginning to make a mark. A Prabha Dutt (1982) stunt of scooting off to the Indo-Pak battle front in 1965 was completely unheard of. According to her daughter, Barkha Dutt (also an awardee, in 1999), “My defining memory of my mother comes from an iconic photograph of her perched atop a tank, army cap flung casually on her head, utterly oblivious of the curious stares of the soldiers behind her, wearing a huge smile that clearly marks the satisfaction that can only come from a good story.”
Making News, Breaking News, Her Own Way is an anthology of essays written by many of the winners of the Chameli Devi Jain award for outstanding women media persons. These essays are a brilliant mapping of the range of issues that have been tackled and publicised by them. Women journalists, in the past, were inevitably given assignments termed “boring” by editorial teams: reporting on flower shows or press conferences organised by the Consumer Guidance Society. Yet, it was exactly these kinds of assignments that got Sakuntala Narasimhan involved in civic and community issues. As Shahnaz Anklesaria Aiyar (1983) comments perceptively, “when India woke up each morning and shook out its daily newspapers, it was often women journalists who informed them of the state of their schools, hospitals, prisons, and orphanages. After the initial reports of riots, droughts, and floods had made the headlines, it was often women journalists who went back to the scenes of carnage or devastation and gave its victims a voice, telling their stories of quiet or repressed human suffering, bureaucratic neglect or worse.” But Neerja Chowdhury(1981) acknowledges: “It goes without saying that for a woman, combining a highly competitive profession with her other roles, requires a high degree of organisation and support of the family…”
These essays also map the landscape of media in India, a major factor being the huge advances in technology. It not only spruced up the existing modes of media dissemination, but also created an intricate network which made it easy to link up from any remote corner of the country and transmit/broadcast or update news, 24x7 (brilliantly recounted by Banu Haralu, 2001). For Sevanti Ninan (1982) “In twenty-six years of reporting media, one has seen the landscape transform. Newspapers spread to small towns, then kasbas, then villages. They went colour and grew heavy with supplements. Television grew out of Doordarshan straitjacket and blossomed via an illegal cable industry. And in 1995, came the internet, bringing possibilities we had never dreamt of.” Kalpana Sharma (1986) adds: “Technology, I believe, should not change the focus of journalism. Whatever the form – print, television, radio, internet – what matters is the perspective of the practitioners of the trade. If, as journalists, we think our job is merely to relay bits of information to the general public, we are only a little better than ‘stenographers’. If, on the other hand, we believe that what we write can make a difference to people’s lives, then regardless of the technology we use, we can find ways of doing just that.” But it is Sheela Bhatt (1993) who sums up this dichotomy between media and technology very well. “The struggle today is about keeping the balance between the input that comes through technology and real-world interactions. …Time has become a constraint because I am engaged with the world through technology! This change is detrimental to my profession and me, and I keep wondering if an information-overload is making me much richer, emotionally or spiritually, I think not. I do have more information available now, but I was much better informed then. …Making loud noises is not journalism.”
Another narrative that is evident in the arrangement of these essays is the perception of journalists from being bracketed as “women” to gender-neutral terminology, “media persons” or the outrage felt by Nirupama Subramanian(2008): “When I heard about receiving the Chameli Devi Jain Award, my immediate instinct was to call the awards committee and make the following declaration: ‘Thank you for thinking I am deserving of this award, but I regret to say I cannot accept it because I do not think of myself as a “woman journalist”. I am a journalist, full stop.’” It is a recognition of the fabulous work done by the women’s movement during the period that these awards were being given, a sensitivity to the correct use of terminology and not necessarily to be defined by your gender. Yet, as Barkha Dutt (1999) points out that she learnt how to navigate the complex issues of gender equality from her mother, and yet nearly two decades after Prabha Dutt (1982) this issue continues to be an integral part of this profession, especially if you are a woman.
A fascinating trajectory that has been documented (probably inadvertently) by the contributors has been how they perceive their writing. From being journalists who report facts, create awareness, behave responsibly in disseminating information, and crucially keeping history alive in the collective memory as pointed out by Teesta Setelvad (1992) --- “Since the first post-Partition communal riot in Jabalpur in 1961, our collective failure to deal with this eerie phenomenon and ensure that the guilty are punished, has allowed localised anti-minority pogroms to escalate into genocide.” For Sakuntala Narasimhan (1983) in order to be a good journalist and “to pursue this writing, I stopped writing fiction, though fiction too, can be a very potent vehicle for social comment.” By the time Sonu Jain (2003) won, she felt journalism was akin to strong storytelling --there was a “need to pick up new tools of my changing trade of storytelling, tools of analysis, methodology, history, and research.”
Making News, Breaking News, Her Own Way is a behind-the-scenes documentation on how these amazing journalists have brought stories out on time. It could be juggling multiple responsibilities of a professional, wife, and mother, “force myself to sit late into the night, after sterilising the feeding bottle, putting my child to sleep, closing the kitchen door, to write something...” or as illustrated by the Prabha Dutt anecdote.
What shines through all these essays is the grit and determination of these women to excel in whatever assignment that came their way, but to also be persistent, patient, recognise significance of stories, and gather all their facts before publishing. After all, as Neerja Chowdhury says, “credibility, I feel is still the most prized asset of any media person”. Today, with the various forms of media available, there are plenty of opportunities and it is a highly sought- after profession, but as Sevanti Ninan points out “subject-knowledge in a majority of the members of the tribe is at an all-time low.” Having said that, books like this should be made compulsory reading. Preferably along with Missing: Half the Story, Journalism as if Gender Matters, edited by Kalpana Sharma and Ammu Joseph. And a balance could be achieved if the Media Foundation commissions a similar anthology of essays by prominent male journalists from approximately the same period in history. This three-volume set would then become seminal reading for mediawallahs and the lay reader.

(The author is an international publishing consultant and a columnist.)

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