Monday, 24 January, 2022
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Journalism in the time of corona: This is the biggest story of our lives

A billion-plus people expect us to be around, watching, reporting, editing, recording this for posterity, blowing the whistle on injustices and state failures.

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You have to be reckless, even impertinent and a little nutty, to steal the headline of your column from Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The truth is, we journalists are usually all three of these.

If we are also generally forgiven for these flaws and more, it is because people, by and large, know where we are coming from. In so many years, in fact decades of journalism, I have never been treated rudely or in an uncivil manner by almost anyone, even those who might have had reason to be angry.

In riots, insurgencies, calamities, election campaigns, we journalists find we are generally treated well, and with respect. Even the rough guys, whose cause might need them to kill with passion, would often share their meals with you, escort you to safety; the odd exception apart. There is honour among thieves.

Where does this come from? Who taught the billion-plus people of this vast and diverse nation that journalists are important to them? That they are decent folk they can trust the stories of their lives with, even political views?

If you travel during election campaigns, you’d be struck by how welcoming and generous people are to journalists they may have never known. It is remarkable how forthcoming even the women in the poorest villages have become. This is a unique social contract between the people of India and their journalists.

The bedrock of this is their belief that we do our jobs diligently and bravely. That’s why the first call so many aggrieved people across the country make, when the government or the police aren’t listening to them, is to a media organisation.

All these are exactly the expectations they have from us, as we now deal with what could be the biggest story of our lives, the coronavirus threat. We, the kinship of Indian journalism, will be tested as never before. Future generations of Indians will hold us to this. Let’s recall that famous World War-I British recruitment poster: Daddy, what did YOU do in the Great War?

It is that kind of moment for us.

Also read: Death of Indian media is fake news. But scary, some greedy owners fall for a silly con

This is a deadly global pandemic. Every country is caught in its own problems, every man for himself. In his address to the nation Thursday, the prime minister made an important point: That today, no country is in a position to help another.

India is alone in this. We have a complex, messy country with lots and lots of people less privileged and resourceful than us. One of the great gifts of India to us journalists is the respect and freedoms we are instinctively given. We must remember where the social contract I mentioned earlier comes from. The freedom of the press is hardly codified by any law or the Constitution. Article 19 applies to each citizen equally, and accords no special rights to us journalists.

Until Indira Gandhi’s Emergency, we took our freedoms for granted. And when she took it all away, there was nowhere to go. Not even to the courts. It is then that the people of India, enormously poorer and less literate than today, realised that among the things she had stolen from them was a free press. That it was a particularly cheap thing for her to do. That it would never want any establishment to be able to do so. That’s where this social contract came from. This is the equivalent of the First Amendment for Indian journalism.

But, if they so value and protect our freedoms, they will also judge whether we justify them or not.

I hear you, fellow journalists, when some of you express fears. No one, at least no one sensible, is ever totally fearless. Fear is good, and self-preservation, a vital instinct. As old wisdom goes, jaan hai toh jahaan hai (the world matters to me only if I am alive). No one need be reckless. Experience taught me this, wading through troubled and violent places in my years as a danger-junkie. The last thing any decent newsroom leader would want is to expose anyone to undue risk.

But we are journalists. As the biggest story of our lives plays out, there are a billion-plus people enormously more fearful and less protected than us. They expect us to be around, watching, reporting, editing, recording this for posterity, and blowing the whistle to draw attention to injustices and state failures. In situations like this wretched coronavirus calamity, we journalists are the first responders of justice — and history.

If we fail to do so, it will be a failure so colossal that we might as well stop calling ourselves journalists. And mind you, just because some of us fail this test, not everyone will. Some honourable people from our professional clan will shine. The future generations will forever have some journalists of this era to admire. Those who miss out won’t be forgotten easily. Just that they won’t be remembered in the way they’d wish to be.

Also read: A study, 3 drugs — latest from scientists on coronavirus and how to deal with it

I have always believed that everything ultimately turns out to be ‘less worse’ than it seems to be to begin with. I’ve been right always, with one exception: The 2004 tsunami. I’d say all of us will survive this and have stories to tell through the rest of our lives. We journalists are like cockroaches, and this isn’t meant to be an insult to the poor insect. It is just that, like them, we shall survive anything.

Someone asked me a good question in the newsroom in this stressful week. What if things turned real bad and some of us also died while on the story? The answer is simple: Even in the most unlikely event of such a thing happening, there will be some journalists covering the story. Journalism will do its job.

Twice in his speech Thursday, the prime minister listed the media among essential services, like doctors, hospital staff, police, and government officers. Frankly, it’s a happy change to be described as an essential service. In the decades we were growing up, we were mostly described as a pestilence!

We must believe we are important and provide an essential service. Our pride, our self-esteem, our sense of destiny all emanate from that one belief: That we matter. Issues with the establishment, we will always have. But who, in which democracy, doesn’t?

Watch the insults Donald Trump routinely hurls at the finest American bylines and the greatest institutions in global media. Or, take inspiration from the BBC when, in the midst of the Falklands War, Margaret Thatcher attacked it for not being patriotic enough and treating the two antagonists equally. “The BBC needs no lesson in patriotism from the present British Conservative government,” said Richard Francis, who then headed BBC Radio. “The widow of Portsmouth is no different from the widow of Buenos Aires.”

We will keep questioning and irritating governments. They will retaliate. This game will go on. Just that the intensity or nastiness will vary from one regime to another. But, a crisis like this should make us toss those worries away for now. So, fasten your seat belts. Journalism in the time of corona is a story like no other yet.

Also read: Indian journalists face a brutal equation: Fight together for press freedoms or perish


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  1. The present crisis and it’s solution does not lie within our borders alone. The way our media has been silent and even paliantly carrying out half-truths, even outright lies coming from country where Covid-19 originated and was mismanaged, has robbed India media of whatever little credibilty it enjoyed. To make matters worse, prominent publications have carried paid propaganda and made their op-ed pages available to officials of that country with no counter viewpoint.

  2. Biggest story of journalists life and only 27 readers comments published. It’s being choosy or indifference to readers views?

  3. No journalist is seen wearing handgloves and are not maintaining distances from people they are interviewing. This reflects poorly on their education and their voyeuristic EDITORS

  4. Very correct and apt those who know the media working will never blame the journalists, even their kitchen fire need to burn. It’s pretty unfortunate and sad today ever instruction as crumbled. media owners, less said the better. People like ramanthgoinka will be pitching a rolling in their graves. I’ll and informed people will clap for you journalists. 💐

  5. Post -corona World . post-corona India is going to be some what different. The mankind was never in awe with stock pile of thousands of deadly nuclear ,bombs. World was not afraid to face terrorist of all the religious shades. It continued to face the threat of bombs and terror with pursuing different ideologies and different political, religious, social and economic systems. But never has humanity find itself in danger of being defeated convincingly by a virus which is not even visible to our eyes , except by microscopes during last hundred years since the man entered in age where it could fly to any corner of the world. Perhaps this is way by which nature wants to warn humanity how fragile the man s defences are against silent furies of the nature. It is not yet time to start blame game how the virus started to attack humankind and why and how it was not contained at very inception or steps taken to save maximum number of people were taken at appropriate times by the governments or not . Once the threat of virus is adequately tamed , a new world order — a new post corona world order may remain a big topic to deliberate upon by the best mind of this planet. It is going to be a different world order . Globalisation, international trade , immigration policies , international travel , international relations, international movement of capital and labour — are going to see some rethinking. The impact on the world will be like the world war II. Let us hope post -corona world becomes and remain a happy world.

  6. Shekarji certainly knows how many were/are honest within their journalists squadron. Most of them have their pressure from top to produce results and news are created with exciting headlines , breaking news and all. Most of the time news are presented as amslysys, without any research or analytical stuff in it. Recently I was going through an analyst argument about how much of news have impact or bring changes to your life. Literally none, except those cases where you are going to airport and came back as the flight you are suppose to take did not land due to accident and hence will not take off for you and media blasted this news all around and you did not see that news. Otherwise you are not missing any news, anything important. Instead of watching media blasting with breaking news to improve their TRP, better to focus on maganizes or news columns that has important information. That what I appreciate, The Print is different and most of Cut the Clutter or opinion section are good read. Of course, many writers here too overawed by their left leaning, hate Modi approach to invite viewers attention. I am sure this is going to change.

  7. Boss, reality is staring at us. Please lock yourself down completely. A channel’s virtues, a doctor’s credibility and such discussions are not going to help. Complete isolation may still be of help. Earlier, it should have been completed isolation for the suspected ones. Now it should be complete isolation for those who still are not infected.

  8. This piece made me realise, like never before, the importance of media and journalism in modern human societies. Can you imagine a “modern world” without media? I cannot. Media definitely is one of the things that characterises modern human societies. I feel like I have a lot more to think and write, but it’s late in the night, so, goodnight.

  9. Please stop assigning narcissistic undue undeserved importance to your trade.

    A wise man once said don’t be so serious, you are not THAT great.

  10. No journalist is asking why Kanika Kapoor or for that matter VIP children who are being found positive now were allowed to mingle with others and not quarantined for 14 days on their entry under public health watch. Why only emphasis is on tests ?

  11. it seems that corona virus spread is well thoght ploy/policy of china to boost its sagging economy and become world leader. firstly it it exported virus to world and now masks, sanitizers, testing kits, doctots dresses, medicines etc, thereby boosting its own economy and destroying the economy of whole world.

    • No country would do this for increasing trade. The damage that has been done by covid-19 to China and its people is unprecedented and would last for decades. Many of the not so educated have started shunning people who look like Chinese. Many from the educated lot, who have heard about China suppressing the news about the outbreak in the initial months, are now permanent enemies of China.

  12. The list of journalists is long and a few have become channel owners ,who have disgraced this profession and provided an apt moniker of presstitutes to them.
    Nobody with self-respect wants to enter this profession.

  13. Vishnu Som of NDTV is doing his job by interviewing Dr Arvind Kumar, who says that it is delusional to believe India is not at the stage of Community Spread already. It is the media’s job to tell it like it is, inform and sensitise people whose families could be at risk. Not the junior minister for Health , extolling sunlight and Vitamin D or Ms Shaina NC holding forth on the therapeutic effects of beating drums and cymbals in unison. The public discourse has fallen prey to a distinctly unscientific temper – read Ms Kaveree Bamzai’s column on people drinking cow’s piss. Now more than ever before, the media should be like a shaft of sunshine.

    • Well, Shri ashok JI, what IF just like the “virus free” namaste adopted worldwide, the next pandemic’s remedy is anti-viral syrup made from cow’s piss. Sir, never discount anything.

      • ‘namaste “is recommended instead of a hand shake to avoid direct contact, to keep distance. It is this distancing that keeps you virus free, not namaste. Instead of doing namaste, one can also simply say, “how are you?” Namaste is just a sign of respect for the other person, while cow piss is a substance in which the medicinal science has found no medicinal value so far. The cow piss is just a waste the cow ejects, the same way human piss is the waste the human body ejects. So, just as the namaste has nothing to do with the virus, nor the cow piss has anything to do with the virus. If the cow piss had any medicinal value, the medical science would have found it during its hundreds of years of existence.

    • Well this Dr. Arvind Kumar’s opinion is just that, an opinion as good or bad as anybody else’s. Unless his words are backed by evidence it doesn’t mean much, irrespective of who interviews him or on which channel it is aired.

    • Even listening to jokes from poets is better than watching NDTV, the media that is hub of lies, fake news and propaganda. For a change stop watching NDTV for a month to empty the garbage filled in your head.

  14. Hyperbole much. Journalists and credibility don’t go together at least not nowadays. Most journalists are now reduced to being opinion writers and influence peddlers. Can the author last remember when any journalist reported anything eventful. Most of them faithfully reproduce government handouts. The rest are too busy peddling their own beliefs and trying to fit everything around it.

  15. Sir, even now we may salvage the situation. Contacts of all positive cases should be diligently traced out and quarantined at once for 14 days. If any flight is allowed from affected countries all passengers and crews should be quarantined and later tested. Instead of nautanki, all the might of the state should be utilised for prevention.

  16. Good! But, exclude influence peddlers like Burka Dutt. They bring disgrace to journalism. Article reads like Saint Augastine’s confessions!

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