Even if a subject denies being interviewed, publishing a thorough profile is a democratic duty

07 November 2020

The following is the introduction to The Caravan Book of Profiles, a selected anthology of our publication’s long-form profiles, published in 2016 by Penguin. It features 13 of the 110 profiles that The Caravan had published by the summer of 2016, including that of the former prime minister Manmohan Singh, the former finance minister Arun Jaitley, the former Pakistan prime minister Nawaz Sharif, the media mogul Sameer Jain, the musician MS Subbulakshmi and the liquor barren Ponty Chadha. In its introduction, Vinod Jose, the executive editor of The Caravan, writes about profiling public figures in India, and discusses why a journalist or publication must proceed with a piece of well-rounded journalism even when its subject refuses to be accessible.

There was a time when, world over, everybody knew the standard protocols for what a newsperson called the “celebrity profile.” To write the profile of a famous person engaged in the work of politics, culture or business, the journalist first went straight to the celebrity. They were routinely stonewalled by the celebrity’s publicist, who set the rules of engagement: in almost every case, it meant the journalist would be given access to this luminary only on the condition that he or she would write something pleasing about them (the subject). 

When published, these profiles sounded like run-on versions of long transactional Q&As. They contained little criticism of their subject, and the voice of the essay was that of the celebrity, not of the writer. Oozing across the pages, inevitably, were a few well-posed pictures, good enough for the appeased idol to frame the pages in glass, teak and rosewood, and tack them next to his certificates on the office walls. 

The other sort of profile emerged later. Attempted with the greatest distinction by American magazines of narrative journalism, this style only grew to prominence in the mid-twentieth century. Investigative, critical, and often witty, the piece let the reader know, through its voice, that the writer-journalist was in command here, rather than the subject. Any material thrown up by way of a personal encounter with the subject was just one of a range of raw materials at the writer’s disposal. 

These works of journalism came closer than others to literature. Their character sketches were created through the imprints of strong imagery and scenes that were woven together in the fashion of a plot. The persons under investigation became not unlike the memorable, well-crafted figures of classic literature. This sort of writing became a genre unto itself.

Vinod K Jose is the executive editor of The Caravan.

Keywords: media journalism