Notebook | Comment

Interrupted by a virus, in medias res

It is perhaps a rare thing to live through a rather prolonged cataclysm, and have it turn things on their head. And yet, here we are, with none of the exhilaration of a peasant who had just stormed the Bastille, or the extraordinary relief of the man who clung on to a coconut tree for hours while the tsunami swept everything around him out.

As we lived out the first half of 2020 through the epidemic, there’s neither exhilaration or relief yet, just the overwhelming recognition that life as we know it has changed. It has not only challenged norms as we know it, and altered them, but also taken with it some well-entrenched practices. One of the things we have had to unlearn is solid, good, old-fashioned journalism.

“There’s no replacement for legwork,” our professor at journalism school exhorted us, with the fastidiousness of a ballet teacher. Ground work, field work, going to the spot, was everything a good reporter had to do. Everything else was ‘armchair’, and subject to a full measure of derision. Being present ‘at the spot’ to verify facts has been paramount, for a vintage of journalists. Picking up the phone and calling just would not cut it. Having been groomed on a rich diet of ‘legwork’ , it naturally became a guiding principle. Besides, what’s journalism about but gadding about in the sunshine and rain, fresh air, and writing the stories of people, first listening to them and then telling the tales? The phone call became a buddy over the years, but would be reserved for when it became inevitable.

Ravages of the virus

Today, though, teams of reporters who’ve been hounded about visiting the spot are being told repeatedly to ‘be careful’, even — ‘if you can get it on the phone, do so!’

With the still mysterious virus holding court, journalists have learnt to do what they’ve seldom done before — tread with caution. Throwing danger to the winds during an investigative story or feeling the thrill of gaining access to forbidden hospital corridors and documents are paling in comparison to the ravages of an inscrutable virus.

Scores of journalists have tested positive, some of them have died of the infection. Were they felled by reporting from the field? We will not know for sure. But it is clear that there are inherent risks, there are precautions to be taken even as we skirt around transmission risks, in pursuing a passion/profession the way we know best.

Data is a boon, and so is TV feed, in some instances. The same information is available without the inherent risks that crowded press conferences entail. Additional queries can be addressed over the phone to sources who have been cultivated through years of face-to-face contact.

But there are instances where this is insufficient; if it won’t tell the story, and the actual presence of journalists is a must, then reporters are being told to gear up, keep distance and file the report without coming into office, thereby setting a limit on exposure. Teams work on alternate days, trying to avoid meeting each other, so it is possible to restore business as usual in case one team is to be quarantined due to exposure. Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures, and even if it has caught us in medias res, we’ll just have to ride this one out with our feet on the ground, even if not always ‘at the spot’.

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Printable version | Aug 8, 2020 2:11:22 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/interrupted-by-a-virus-in-medias-res/article31973821.ece

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