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Wednesday, June 18, 2014 

Journalists of India should have greater access to quality training – Sam Miller

"Journalism seems to be undergoing an acid test in India where it is expected to prove its commitment to the ordinary people and to the basic objective of the profession itself. While one group is critical about the profession citing at dilution of the very ethical principles by the practitioners, the other group sees more outside control of the media in the name of business. There is yet another group that believes, the professionals in the field require more training to upgrade their skills – both technical and editorial - which in turn would help journalism become more effective in terms of serving ordinary people and guiding the power as well. On behalf of HOTnHIT Newsfeatures, Basudev Mahapatra tries to find out the shortfalls and possibilities in the profession of journalism in India while talking to senior journalist, writer and media trainer Sam Miller during his visit to Orissa's Bhubaneswar city for a workshop on Feature Journalism organised by the BBC World Service Trust."
Basudev Mahapatra


Basudev Mahapatra (BM): So, when I came to know that you are in Bhubaneswar, I thought it would be an opportunity to have an interaction with you.

Sam Miller (SM): My pleasure!

BM: I wanted to discuss about the kind of journalism that is being practiced in India at present...

SM: As you know, journalism has expanded very very rapidly in this country and India has a huge number of very good journalists. Most of them, in my view, have not had enough opportunity for training. And, what the BBC World Service Trust hopes to do is to be in a position to provide training to working journalists. . I think the feeling is that there is not enough access to training for working journalists.

Here in Orissa, at the moment, we are working on a project that’s really about feature journalism. And, it’s funded, the project, with a very specific aim of giving greater coverage to tobacco related issues; so issues to do with tobacco industries, to do with advertising, to do with public health, to do with child labour and trying to raise the profile of those issues in the Indian media generally. And, obviously, since we are here in Orissa this week to raise it in Orissa now.

And, we do that by providing local journalists with a course in feature journalism and we hope in that endeavour that they will do some features on tobacco issues. But we also think we help them in their everyday work. As I said, there is not enough training for journalists, there is not enough opportunity for them to sit and discuss their work - to say, this kind of story worked, this one didn’t work so well, and we help in a way to provide a forum for that.

BM: How do you compare journalism as practiced in India with that of Europe? And, particularly, how useful such courses by BBC World Service are?

SM: I think there are bad examples from almost everywhere, you know! I can think of some bad examples in my country, I can think of bad examples from the rest of Europe and obviously I can think of bad examples here. So I don’t think it’s about me saying this place is worse, this place is better or whatever.

I think it’s more about how journalists, as a professional, go about dealing with that in the changing scenario.

Indian journalism has got a huge amount to be very proud of.  But I think there are lots of problems. And a lot of them, as I have mentioned, have been due to lack of training. It’s not bad will, it’s not as if journalists who make mistakes are   evil. So the real need is for high quality training of India journalists in-service, for working journalists. There is a strong emphasis on journalism courses before you join journalism, and almost no talk about training for working journalists, and working journalists actually need training far more.

I am happy to talk about this project by BBC World Service specifically. Which is a project that is trying to get a particular issue covered more in the media. We are not saying it needs to be covered in this way or that way. We don’t want the issue to be covered by plugging a particular line. But we are saying, this issue - tobacco control needs more and better quality coverage in the Indian media.

I think there has been an obsession with high politics, and business, but there aren’t enough social, health, people’s stories. And, that’s what we are trying to change here.

I think there has been an

obsession with high politics,

and business, but there aren’t

enough social, health,

people’s stories. And, that’s

what we are trying to change.

I picked up one newspaper here today and didn’t see any good feature story. The kind that tell you about someone’s life and make you think, or make you do something differently. And, that’s what I think is lacking and we are going to encourage more of. And, that we do across the country. These are human interest stories which have an issue at their heart. Issue based journalism is a good thing so long as it stand in human terms.

If you want to talk about child labour, you don’t need to write an essay about it. You go and meet a child or an employer, and get that story, bring it out. At the end of the story, you might have your conclusions and your more analytical points. Actually, journalism in my view is about telling stories, telling true stories. They need to be read like stories, look like stories rather than like post-graduate essays. And, you know, it should be about journalists going out, meeting people, coming back and filing stories, this is how journalism use to be. It can’t all be done on the mobile phone and the Internet. That’s what we are working on in our courses.

BM: In your view, where do most Indian Journalists lack or, in the other way, where should they improve?

SM:  There need to be more and better feature stories, more human-centred, person-centred stories which begin with a part of someone’s life story. And, for me not only is it right that you should be doing those stories, most readers, most viewers will remember those stories. If you ask an ordinary member of the public to tell you about the story they remember over the last year, it will usually be a slightly off-beat, interesting, different story. It won’t be the interview with the leader of the opposition because people are fed up a lots of the time with politics. They want stories; they want things that tell them about people and the world. They do not want this party or that minor party might split if such and such happens.

Journalism in my view is about telling stories, telling true stories. They need to be read like stories, look like stories rather than like post-graduate essays.

I think there are some good feature writers around, particularly in the magazines where there is more time to report. And, that’s one of the hardest things for a journalist. To do a good feature story you need time, you need to work  on the story, you need to follow up from different angles, you need to think about how you are going to write it, how you are going to begin the piece… whereas, with daily news journalism, you know, we can do several stories in a day. But that carefully written feature story - that isn’t a hard news item, it could run tomorrow or the next day, doesn’t need to go today; these stories somehow feel lower priority to the newsrooms. But it’s these pieces that the audiences remember.

BM: But In India, don’t you see journalists are more interested in reporting politics than issues of people living at the grass root level.

SM: I think that’s partly about the status of politics within journalism. The higher up you go the more you want to do the big political story and you go and interview the Chief Minister etc. And I think that’s the problem. I would love to see more senior journalists take up social and economic features, health, environment, these kinds of stories. And, they often don’t do these. You know, they often get given to the junior person in the office. 

BM: In a country of one billion people where over 70% do lead a miserable life, how do you see the role and responsibility of journalists in bringing them up?

SM: I think, the responsibility on Indian journalism is to tell their stories, make sure people know their story and define interesting ways of doing and telling their story. And, you tell the stories of the rich as well. But, ordinary lives can be interesting. You can meet anyone around here, you can plan a story, spend sometime with them, they trust you, you speak to them in common language, there is a story they can tell! They can be a part of your next feature!

And, you know, as a journalist sometimes you become obsessed by getting an interview with this big famous person, and then when you get the interview, they say what they have said in every previous interview. But those other people has never been interviewed in their life, they may have an interesting story to tell!

BM: In India, Journalists working at grass-root level and bringing out the issues are being targeted in the recent years. Even here in Orissa many of the Journalists have been harassed while doing their job! How do you think that the government and administration should take it?

SM: Any attempt to censor, or to harass media would usually backfire. The media is quite powerful so long as it’s broadly united; then it’s an incredibly powerful force. And, a government that takes on the media as a whole is being very foolish. What they are trying to do is, pick off one or two people whom they see as trouble. Then they complain, you did the story about such and so. And, which is why having some kind of media solidarity is so important.. And, I would also say, to be honest being a journalist is not a risk free job. It’s your job as a journalist to tell the truth as you find it and telling the truth involves risks if you are exposing people, if you are embarrassing people. That’s part of being a journalist! I think while going into the profession one should realise that it’s not totally risk free.

BM: There has been a boom in Indian media sector. How do you see this boom? Has it helped improving the quality of journalism in India?

SM: I am not convinced it helps. It doesn’t necessarily hinder either. And, part of the problem at the moment is too many of the channels and newspapers are copying each other. They are not willing to stand up and be different. Or, from a business point of view, they should aim for different segments of the market rather than all reach out for the same segments and end up copying each other. I would love to see more innovation and more difference in Indian media.

You know, there is some superb journalism and some very fine journalists working here.  I would wish and, I think, many of them would wish that they got more training. They should also get more opportunity to discuss their work, more training to improve their technical skills and their editorial skills.

You know, I worked for many many years for the BBC. One of the best things as an employee has been every year there has been some kind of professional training. It’s seen as part of being a Journalist; that, being a journalist isn’t just about doing a story, but it’s about learning and developing and improving your own skills in a word.

Being a journalist is not a risk free job. It’s your job as a journalist to tell the truth as you find it and telling the truth involves risks if you are exposing people, if you are embarrassing people. That’s part of being a journalist!

BM: What will you say about ethical standards in Indian Journalism today?

SM: Every organisation should have its editorial guidelines which it’s willing to publish, which it is willing to adhere by. I think it has been a good development that The Hindu has a readers’ editor. I think that kind of person who is half inside, half outside the organisation is a very good way of checking on the extent to which editorial guidelines and other guidelines kept. So, I would recommend that.

In the end, it’s the job of the editors to ensure that their editorial guidelines are met.

You know, I come from an organisation which is neutral. It tries to be objective. Where as, other media organisations which are quite open that they support such and such a party. I am not saying that’s wrong so long as they are open about it.

If you think of American Fox News, I don’t like its content and the style of journalism. But I will support its right to exist because it’s absolutely clear where it stands. It says, it supports the right wing conservatives in America.

BM: Yes. In fact, you know, during these days, there has been lot of changes in the practice of journalism. Like, in India particularly, sting operation kind of journalism is becoming popular even though it’s still controversial to say whether it’s good or bad. So, how do you see the changes in practice of journalism in India during your stay in this country?

SM: There are certainly lot more stings and they are of variable quality. But, when there are so many of them, people stop paying attention. They stop being the big news they should be. 

I think there is also an obsession with breaking news. And often it is not really very breaking, it’s just news! I think the idea of breaking news should be reserved for a major event, a major story that’s just emerging. And, we have sometimes seen breaking news which turns out to be someone from that same channel winning an award. That’s the worst.

BM: People from non-news background are now coming into news business and are controlling not only the business but the editorial aspects as well. How do you see to this trend?

SM: What is most important among   journalists is that there is a common understanding of what journalism is, what its core values are. And, obviously, the danger is, with more people who haven’t come from a journalistic background that common understanding be diluted. My point, I will keep repeating is that no one was born a journalists. We learn to be journalists. And, if someone stops being a lawyer and decides to become a journalist, it’s good, bringing their outside experience to the profession. But it is absolutely critical, when there are people who join the profession, that they understand the profession and get training in the profession.

BM: But in India, you must have observed, people without any understanding of the profession are coming in and are using Journalism as a tool to achieve their other goals!

SM: As I said, it’s a part of the business relationship. I think, that happens in most countries around the world. Obviously I deplore it. I think it’s very important that the media regulates itself. Otherwise governments do it, but governments regulate it very badly and often for selfish reasons. So, the problem is if media begins to lose its credibility, and it will if it doesn’t keep to journalistic standards, everyone loses.

Even for those people you are talking about and who aren’t really journalists they will still see a longer term business interest in them maintaining the credibility of their organisation. Because if they don’t, in the long run, they will lose viewers, they will lose readers.

(Sam Miller is a senior journalist associated with BBC for long years. His first book Delhi: Adventures in a Megacity was published by Penguin India in January 2009 and became a best-seller. He now runs media training projects in the subcontinent for the BBC World Service Trust.)

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