News reporting a challengeable job
Er. Prabhat Kishore
A journalist believes that the news frame should be such as to provide to readers all different and varied aspects of a given subject. There should not be any ‘beating around the bush’ as the proverb goes, but to hit at the bull’s eye directly. This should include all the background and atmosphere of the news as it developed. It should tell the reader not only what had happed, but also why it had happed. The reader should be given the entire story in an exhaustive manner but within limited and balanced words.
In-depth reporting is simply a good reporting with unchallengeable accuracy and with all the available details. Depth reporting is short of explanatory story of an incident which was published earlier. It may follow news story with photographs to illustrate the story to make it more attractive. Depth reporting often is not a one-man story, rather it is a teamwork which deals mainly with explanatory facts. It should be framed in such a way which will leave no occasion for readers to ask more questions.
Therefore, it is not that type of writing the news, which merely presents facts as they appear first, but which goes deeper into the origin, the logic, the various pressures and the variety of interests involved to allow the readers thoroughly understand not merely ‘who’ and ‘what’, but also the most important ‘why’s.
In a nutshell, depth news seeks to dig deeper and deeper beneath the surface to come up with revealing facts that are not apparently visible. It should tell the readers of facts to make them judge the whole truth. It should not be unnecessarily long report as length of the report has nothing to do with the depth. Perspective reporter will surely be able to provide the maximum information in fewest paragraphs.
Reporters, who have done quite well in his work for years to the fullest satisfaction of the editor and other seniors, are gradually permitted to do political reporting, investigative reporting or similar such assignments. One such important assignment, which may be entrusted to those seniors, is interpretative reporting. This is a very serious and responsible work entrusted to very senior reporters. In the present day world readers are not satisfied with mere reading the news. They want to know news behind the news. They want interpretation of any particular important news. Generally, such interpretation on basis of news is given by editors in their editorials. But then readers do not want to wait that long to understand the complications of news through editorials. They want immediate interpretation from the reporter along with the news. This is in a way encroaching the jurisdiction of the editors himself. But those reporters, who are allowed to do interpretative reporting, are very senior people and their position is almost like that of the reporter or only next to him. In a way editor gives him the freedom to do interpretation along with the news.
In golden days, there was clear distinction between reporting facts and opinions or comments or interpretation on facts by the reporters and editors. But in course of time it has been found that the old distinction between reporting facts and comments or interpretation on it, does not fit into the reality of today.
Modern world is very complicated and it is very hard for readers to understand all the complexities of news. Therefore, it was increasingly felt the need to simultaneous interpretation of news, to explain it fully to the satisfaction of readers. For a reporter, the reader is the ultimate god. Whatever a reporter writes must be fully understood by the readers. Any laxity in reporting or interpreting the complexities of news will only harm the circulation of the paper which would not be liked, both by the editor and the proprietor.
Of investigative journalism
The dividing line between ‘Depth reporting’ and ‘Investigative reporting’ is so thin that it is difficult to differentiate between the two. The general principle is that in ‘Investigative reporting’ the main object is to ferret out, to analyze and to explain in detail important secret information which some interested people want to keep secret. There is however, no hard and fast rule that the writer of depth news or feature stories should not present background in details.
A reporter of The Indian Express, Ashwin Sarin, in early 1970, got himself arrested in Delhi in a tipsy condition (not truly) so that he should be put in Tihar Jail to know what is the horrible condition inside that jail. It was so arranged by his Chief Reporter because they could not succeed to get any inside story about the jail from anywhere outside. Thus, the Chief Reporter (B.P. Sinha) and Sarin decided that he should move about in tipsy condition so that he might be arrested to put inside the jail as he refused the bail offer of the court.
Now he (Sarin) once inside the Tihar Jail got opportunity to collect materials for investigative reporting. He serialised his report in “The Indian Express” after spending several days in the Tihar Jail in Delhi. In his serial, he began by stating: “A day more inside that hell I would have been turned mad’. He had to spend two days for volunteering himself arrested on minor charge (tipsy condition). He gave in that serial stories of vivid account of what it was to be in jail with the professional criminals.
One important point to remember in ‘Investigative’ reporting is that when our subject is familiar, one need not labour very hard for explaining things or situations. We can write our story straight as a news. But if our investigation leads us to quite complicated issues involved in that case we are to give quite a good deal of explanatory and interpretative materials to convince our reader, our report should be balanced, fair and impartial. We the students of journalism should keep ourselves quite detached from the report, that is, no subjective element creep in the report.
Politics dominates life in the world today and naturally it gets reflected in the day-to-day news. Besides political goings on, the media would seem to be pre-occupied with only the darker side of life-disasters, wars, coups and assassinations. These certainly have their place in news but the concept of information in its totality cannot be restricted to these events alone to the exclusion of other areas of information especially developmental activity.
Most of the countries of third world which suffered from stagnation during the colonial era are today witnessing a tremendous upsurge in developmental activity. Leading among them is India where development activity is going on over a wide field. For this to be adequately reflected in the media, special efforts are required on the part of the news agencies also.
News agencies convey the dramatic impact of only events to which they are directly witness. For the rest including large area of development their source had so far been generally second hand, largely official hand-outs.
With the growth of its own network of correspondents and tele-printer link the news agency has always been attempting to provide original reports on such themes as crop prospects and development of energy sources.
Development like the third world and non-alignment are parts of the vocabulary of the era after the second world during which the old colonial empire disintegrated. It is used to describe the process of economic and social change which the leaders and government of the newly independent countries have tried to initiate.
Critics of development reporting say that it is a hand-out journalism-the replication of half-truths put out by official information agencies. Development reporting tends to be equated with the reporting only of positive news to the exclusion of negative or unflattering news because of corruption, lethargy or ignorance.
But development reporting is not- or at any rate should not one sided or propagandist. It should mean reporting of what is going well as much as what is not and why.Some governments’ do not permit an objective and many-sided presentation of reality, that should not be held against the concept of development reporting. In a country like India with a relatively free press, development reporting is not only possible but can help in reforming development, policy and implementation.
Coverage of developmental activity can not be superficial. It has to have depth when for instance an exhibition depicting technological advance of the country in some specific field is held devoting a mere couple of paragraphs to the inaugural speech by some political personality does not constitute coverage of development activity.
Developmental reporting will thus entail more leg work and often more expenses than conventional reporting of the political goings-on at the capital of a country or in the metropolitan centres of the world. It is a false notion that investigative reporting of what is happening about the fulfillment of the basic needs of the majority of people in a country-which is what a development reporting is all about-is the province of newspapers or other media and not of news agencies. Development reporting is well within the sphere of activities of news agencies, the over-riding requirement to be met by news agencies being that of strict adherence to objectivity.
Reporters unaware of the rights of citizens often mention a person or persons by name as having been arrested in connection a crime. This is hazardous. While in most cases the agency may get away with it, there can be occasions when it may find itself in deep waters.
Arrest for a criminal offence tends to lower the public image of a person. An arrest is confirmed only when a person is produced before a magistrate or released on bail by a commissioner of police.
Till then a person even if taken to a police station cannot strictly be described as arrested for he may be allowed to go after interrogation. In this case if an agency has described him as having been arrested, he can sue the agency for liable. The safe way to report the matter is to say that ‘A person was detained for interrogation’. The fact of arrest together with the name can be mentioned after the person is produced before a magistrate.
This does not apply to arrests of dacoits or other outlaws or persons declared to be absconding. Similarly, persons taken into custody for political offences can also be named. Since political offences do not involve moral turpitude and there is therefore no question of any lowering of the public image of a person.
Having covered the proceedings in a lower court, including the judgement convicting and sentencing the accused, an agency cannot forget to lose track of the matter. Once an agency takes note of a case it must follow it to the logical end. For, an accused might prefer an appeal in a higher court and secure acquittal. Not to cover the acquittal is unfair to the person who may in an extreme case sue an agency for damages.
A news agency must be extremely cautious about carrying any statement or other matter that may attract the penal provisions of the Criminal Procedure Code (Cr. P.C.) or other laws.
Natural Disaster Reporting
In covering a natural disaster or a fire, a house collapse, a road, rail or air accident a reporter may describe the scene as he personally sees it, but for facts and figure he would need to quote an authentic source.
On a rain story, for instance, a reporter would obviously not need a source for mention of the fact that there has been a rain or for a description of the flooded condition of the roads. But beyond that when he wants to provide the extent of rainfall he has to find it out from the metrological office and quote it.
In an accident of house collapse or city fire, the fire brigade is the principal source for figures and other details of casualty. In the case of a rail accident the railway authorities and with regard to a boat accident the district authorities, with the police and hospital authorities providing supporting and supplementary information. In no case should figures of casualty be accepted from so called eye witnesses. An eye witness is one who may have been personally involved in an accident or who may have gone to the scene soon after the occurrence and been able to collect early information about it. Such an eye witness may be able to provide on account of his own limited personal knowledge which can add colour to the report. But eye witnesses are far from a competent source of information regarding casualties.
Even conceding that early official figures are incomplete and subject to revision-which is often the case, especially in rail disasters- since bodies trapped under smashed or overturned bogies take time to be extricated. There is no excuse for excepting any other version with regard to the figures of casualty. The agency should give the preliminary official figure making it clear that the final figure is likely to be different.
Whether a fire or a rail or boat disaster has been accidental or caused by negligence, arson or sabotage it takes time to determine the precise cause which could be known only after a full scale inquiry. Still if a competent authority has formed a view as to the cause of the disaster on the basis of preliminary evidence the news agency copy would be justified in mentioning that the concerned authority does not rule out the possibility of arson, sabotage or whatever it is. The agency itself should not speculate about the cause of the occurrence.
(The writer works as Additional State Programme Officer, Bihar Education Project Council, Patna)