What makes a journalist?

In the olden days, a newsroom conjured up an image of a fading, old building, with a fan crankily spinning overhead in a hall with stacks of paper scattered on the desk as the editorial staff struggled to meet the deadline. The look of the newsroom may have changed, but the enthusiasm that comes with doing an interesting story has not. This is what keeps journalists on the go.

“You have to be prepared for long hours and always being on the job. That isn’t a bad thing, at all — it’s very exciting when you’re reporting a big, breaking news story. I never minded having to go into the newsroom suddenly on a day off when some major event occurred. It was a pleasure, and it was always me that phoned the editor, not the other way round,” says Mark Austin, visiting professor at the Indian Institute of Journalism and New Media, Bangalore.

Defining a scribe

More often than not, a reporter is driven to cover issues which excite him, apart from the usual stories he is assigned to do on a day-to-day basis. “Curiosity is one of the defining traits of a good journalist, who is expected to take the initiative to find out more about the subject he/she is writing about,” says YP Rajesh, Associate Editor, The Indian Express, New Delhi. VK Raghunathan, Associate Professor at Asian College of Journalism, Chennai, adds that a journalist must be able to gauge whether the information provided by the source is factual or not.

What are the other elements a journalist must have in mind when he sets out to do a story? David Baines, Senior Lecturer at New Castle University, U.K. says, “The ability to recognise a good story and narrate it in different forums is what characterises a good journalist.”

A different approach renders a distinct viewpoint to a story. Ashok Malik, Delhi-based journalist and commentator, says, “A reporter is not a stenographer. He has to make an assessment, but this is different from giving an opinion. There is a thin line between the two — you have to be mindful of that — which is something that comes with the job.”

Integrity of a journalist plays a crucial role in how a story is communicated to the masses. “Journalists have a strong role in influencing the culture of an organisation, especially addressing some of its approaches to doing stories, some of which may be ruining journalism. It won’t happen unless individual journalists take a stand,” says Professor Baines.

Journalism programmes are offered in a number of universities around the world. Yet many journalists do not have a degree in this field. Earlier this year, Press Council of India chairman Markendey Katju commented that journalists should have professional degrees. So, what is the role of journalism schools and to what extent do they groom students? “Preparing someone to be able to be a broker of information does require a particular skill. Journalism programmes are useful in this regard. An institution should not limit itself to providing vocational skills, but also include within its ambit critical and analytical approaches to doing journalism, with an understanding of how journalism and the media fit into society and their roles in society. Colleges should be able to give journalists an understanding of the industry that keeps pace with the changes in journalism,” says Professor Baines.

Journalism today

Journalists’ roles have evolved in the past half century, from writing stories on a typewriter to editing on a computer; and from jotting down everything on paper to having recording devices at their disposal. Recent years have seen the burgeoning of journals and newer platforms of mass communication.

In fact, with the onslaught of technology and other inventions associated with the Internet, getting acquainted with application development and other new media tools is necessitated.

This makes it all the more important for journalists to not only have all round knowledge, but to also update their skills in the face of changes in technology that have made sweeping changes to business models of newspapers. This is evidenced by the shutdown of print editions of some of the leading international journals, as well as the recent sale of The Washington Post to Amazon founder Jeffrey Bezos. Newsroom integration is another of the major consequences of these changes. In mid -2013, Network 18 said that they would set up an integrated newsroom, consisting of its leading broadcast and digital news outlets in the business media space.

Professor Austin says, “Data mining is one area that will expand hugely. It will be indispensable for all journalists to have digital skills. The Indian print media is taking baby steps in this direction. All the newspapers have websites, and most are optimised for handheld devices. The shift away from paper to online will accelerate, and journalists who have multimedia skills will have an advantage over those who gambled that print will be around for another decade or two.”

Many different genres in journalism have been explored in recent decades. Malik says, “Today’s journalists come from diverse backgrounds both in terms of intellectual disciplines as well as socio-economic backgrounds. Earlier, reportage was limited to government, politics and Parliament. There was hardly any coverage of development, environment and business, which are widely written about today.”

Business news is given significant weightage in the leading dailies, which in addition to having a business segment in the main edition bring out a separate business newspaper.

Gaurav Choudhary, deputy chief of bureau, business, Hindustan Times, says, “In the coming years, journalists who have the ability to understand business and at the same time straddle the world of politics, government and Parliament will do better than those who only know politics.”

Sifting news

Journalism is not confined to the print medium or political news reporting. It is open-ended — evident with the availability of a wide array of journals, journalism reviews, news websites, coverage of specialised beats such as science, health and environment; and opportunities for freelancers, photo journalists and columnists who write on topics of their expertise.

What does a lay person choose to read/watch in this era of information explosion? Rajesh says, “Most news that appears in newspapers is already known to the reader because of easy access to television and the Internet. So, how do you add value and make the report or subject look different? Investigative journalism is what distinguishes a newspaper or television channel — when news has become a commodity. For instance, you could look at farmer deaths in Maharashtra. You can probe the issue to find out the cause by going to the village, see how other people are coping, what’s being done to address the larger problem.”

Nagpur-based journalist with The Telegraph, Jaideep Hardikar says that journalists should start slowly and work towards building a foundation. “It may take several years to understand your field. You should take out time to explore the country, interact with people — this will help you understand the social structure of society,” he says.

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Printable version | Apr 19, 2021 6:11:09 AM |

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