Noticing the Passing Sail

The five cornerstones of journalistic work

Journalism today is in the grip of private interests pursuing commercial goals. The public duty of the profession is at stake. Altaf Qadri / AP Photo
30 April, 2020

This essay has been adapted from an address to young journalists delivered at the 2019 convocation of the Indian Institute of Journalism and New Media in Bengaluru. 

I DO NOT BELIEVE what politicians say most of the time, but this statement, by the former American president Theodore Roosevelt, is quite apt about our profession. 

Roosevelt said, in April 1904:

The man who writes, the man who month in and month out, week in and week out, day in and day out, furnishes the material which is to shape the thoughts of our people, is essentially the man who more than any other determines the character of the people and the kind of government this people shall possess. 

This means journalists have great responsibility. If that man or woman who writes month in and month out, week in and week out, day in and day out, furnishes reports that allow leaders to hold their office without holding their actions and policies to account, or instead glorifies a leader or government that does not deserve it, or overlooks evidence against a leader or government, then that man or woman is playing a partisan role in determining the kind of government the people possess. That man or woman may be a primetime television anchor, a newspaper editor or a beat reporter. Throughout history, leaders and those in power have recognised the need to tame journalists and media houses precisely because they wield the power that Roosevelt acknowledged. Leaders in certain countries game journalists and the media more successfully than others. But the factor that determines the extent to which a powerful man can command his media lies in the hand of the individual journalist—you.

Before moving to contemporary times, let us spend a moment on Roosevelt himself. After endorsing journalism in such glowing terms in 1904, what did Roosevelt do when a sharp reporter published a story alleging that he was guilty of corruption? 

In 1909, the journalist taking on Roosevelt was none other than the legendary Joseph Pulitzer. In his paper, the New York World, Pulitzer published a report about $40 million of funds disappearing during the construction of the colossal Panama Canal. The money, according to the journalists who worked week in and week out, day in and day out, had gone into the pockets of the American company JP Morgan, and Roosevelt’s brother-in-law. Roosevelt filed a defamation case against Pulitzer and threatened to lock him up. The case went on for three years, and went all the way up to the US Supreme Court, with Pulitzer winning in the end. This was one of the early cases where a journalist clashed with the biggest powers of the land. From then on, journalists have had other landmark moments, such as the Watergate scandal and the Pentagon Papers. 

By now, all of you must have acquainted yourself with these cases in your history of journalism classes. You also realise, as you gain more experience in this profession, that journalism is also cultural. From society to society, the power of journalism varies. Pulitzer, the Washington Post and the New York Times fought with the biggest powers in the world’s oldest democracy, the United States. But how many newspapers have fought with the biggest powers in the largest democracy on behalf of journalists’ and their work? The answer is very few. But journalism culture can be changed. Doing so is in the hands of young journalists like you. Of course, to get you there, there are a few things one must do in one’s personal sphere. I want to concentrate this lecture on these things. 

JOURNALISM IS AMONG the most demanding professions. It requires the deepest understanding possible of a wide range of issues. It demands quick judgments in a short span of time. And since journalists face wrath and repression, almost immediately, from the most powerful echelons of society, you need to have tact and strategy in all stages of a story, from pre-publication to post-publication. To do well in such a demanding profession, you will need to develop certain forms of armour. And these will also need periodic maintenance, so that they do not become rusty or lose their soundness. 

Of course, the time-tested way people will stop you from holding up truth to power is to not let you put on your armour in the first place. An editor can shoot down an idea as soon as you pitch it. A proprietor can decide on a list of no-go areas for their newsroom. These are all external factors. But, increasingly, I see these negative forces operating in ever more clever ways, reining in promising journalists through psychological mechanisms.

How does this work? No professional can truthfully claim that she has gained enough experience that her journalistic learning can stop at a certain point in her career. We are all still students. But increasingly in India, shrewd figures in powerful social orders—either from the political or intellectual class, or senior colleagues in your own newsroom—make sure to end a journalist’s growth by forcing her into stagnation. They give her disproportionately superior compliments for average work. They declare she is the best editor, the best reporter and the best journalist. 

I have witnessed editors becoming content and obsolete just because they came up with quirky headlines and kept getting praised for them. Not only does this kind of thing stop you from growing in other aspects of the profession, but you later extend this proficiency at just playing with language to start taking calls where you have the least training or expertise. In many cases, you may kill investigative stories of the utmost national importance, or you may distort facts. You may have very little experience of either doing or supervising investigative journalism, but with your confidence built on your claim to fame in one aspect of journalism—giving quirky headlines—you do not stop to notice where you are lacking.

Similarly, once a reporter finds one of her stories getting traction on social media, or garnering national attention, she gradually cocoons herself in self-gratification. She starts living off of that one story, as opposed to making a habit of producing exceptional work, one story after another. 

When you receive easy accolades in Indian newsrooms, it is a sure way to punish you with lethargy and self-contentment in the long run. While praise is good for self-respect and can help you gain confidence, when it comes from agents of power you should remember that they are also building a relationship with you, to tell you how a certain story should be or why a certain story should be avoided. Eventually, their judgment will overpower you. 

So what is the solution? How can you as a promising young journalist avoid falling prey to contentedness with the things in which you have a natural talent, and instead work to grow in all aspects of journalism? How can you develop your own voice, which will help you find meaning in your work? More fundamentally, what are the aspects of the profession that will make you grow holistically? What types of armour should you wear?

I SUGGEST THAT JOURNALISTS work on five areas simultaneously, so that they do not fall into the trap of decay, irrelevance and doing dud work. These are news instinct, sound judgment, moral courage, subject-area expertise and the craft itself. Your success in this profession depends on how far you are willing to push yourself in these five areas for the rest of your life.

Let us deal with each of them. 

First, the question of news instinct.

Is the sense of what makes news something someone is born with? Must a journalist be born, or can she be made? 

There are certain instincts, skills and even values—such as courage—found in an individual from birth. Early childhood experiences and habits also either increase or decrease one’s sense of what is newsworthy, and what is not. But it is training that brings out this talent, or improves an already existing aptitude. And those who do not have a news instinct early on can gain it through practice and training.

An important question to consider with regard to news instinct is an old one—Who is a journalist? 

This is what Joseph Pulitzer had to say:

What is a journalist? Not any business manager or publisher, or even proprietor. A journalist is the lookout on the bridge of the ship of state. He notes the passing sail, the little things of interest that dot the horizon in fine weather. He reports the drifting castaway whom the ship can save. He peers through fog and storm to give warning of dangers ahead. He is not thinking of his wages, or of the profits of his owners. He is there to watch over the safety and the welfare of the people who trust him.

News instinct makes a journalist take note of the little things. Her news instinct could be sparked by anything and everything that concerns the welfare and safety of the people. And she is unmindful of her proprietor’s interests. Her news instinct is driven by a strong sense of public duty. 

Being a journalist, therefore, is similar to being an artist, a thinker, a writer or a public-spirited lawyer. A journalist is not a businessman, or a trader, or a politician. She is not a woman of commerce. 

Does only a journalist have news instinct? No. Everyone has some semblance of one. In a media house, the proprietor, who is in it for private interests, also has his own sense of news. An oilman, a telecom man, a cement man, a mining man, a moneylender, a defence middleman, a politician—these are the modern-day media proprietors in the world’s largest democracy, India. And these are the people that channel money from their primary trade to their media wing, or deploy the media to multiply their profits in their core business.

There is no public good that such a man aims for. He must operate on the pretext of public duty, but his business, his financial and political fears and his prospects of business growth define what he really is. This is where Joseph Pulitzer had high hopes for professionally trained journalists. But he was proven wrong in the course of time.

In 1904, Pulitzer wrote that the professionally trained journalist will have to her advantage a strong feeling of principle, and she will use it to great social good. Pulitzer said: 

The knowledge that a reputable journalist would refuse to edit any paper that represented private interest against the public good would be enough of itself to discourage such an enterprise. Such a refusal would be as severe a blow to public confidence in the newspaper as the rejection of a brief by a high-minded lawyer is to the standing of a case in court.

He was grossly inaccurate. In India, our oilmen, telecom men, mining men, cement men, moneylenders and defence middlemen have all dumped professionally trained journalists, bulldozed through their professional objections, and still found enough professionally trained journalists willing to join them, who did not refuse to edit their private-interest papers and television networks. 

Since we now understand fairly well what news instinct is, and how it can be grown and also traded these days, let’s move to the second aspect: sound judgment. This lies somewhere between the first and the third—between news instinct and moral courage. 

When Joseph Pulitzer gave a huge gift to Columbia University to create a journalism school—where I had the opportunity to study nearly a century later—he was questioned and challenged. Why should anyone study to be a journalist? Besides honing news instinct, Pulitzer believed that studying journalism offers gains in three things—sound judgment, moral courage, and training and experience. He made this case while establishing Columbia Journalism School.

Sound news judgment is what affects a journalist’s decisions as to what a story is, and what a story must be. Once she has an answer to this, she puts her entire being behind it. It is a judgment that the individual journalist makes, and, ideally, if the story passes all processes in the newsroom like fact-checking, editing and legal vetting, nothing on earth should stop that journalist from fulfilling her public duty and seeing the story through. It is her judgment. And news judgment must be grown and cultivated.

This leads us to the idea of moral courage. A journalist without moral courage—whether an editor or a reporter—has nothing. As some thinkers see it, social climate and geography play a role in deciding the moral courage of individuals, and hence journalism is varied by culture. In some countries, questioning everyone in power is the right thing to do in journalism. In other countries, journalists are not allowed to question anyone in power. In some other countries still, certain interests are exempted from questioning, while others are not. This is a result of the kind of political system at work, and what level of moral courage the journalists in a place exert. 

We should not have a world where the right to question the powerful is confined to only some cultures. It is not okay that in some countries you can question anyone in power, while in others you cannot. 

Take a look at what one of those who set the standards of the trade believed, irrespective of the cultures that existed in each society. Again, from Pulitzer:

Above knowledge, above news, above intelligence, the heart and soul of a paper lie in its moral sense, in its courage, its integrity, its humanity, its sympathy for the oppressed, its independence, its devotion to the public welfare, its anxiety to render public service. 

Every word of it rings true. 

In today’s India, people in powerful places believe that journalism must be devoid of moral courage. I am not talking about a particular party or ideology, or a particular corporate bigwig or their lobbying contractors—who on many occasions have shown their unpleasantness. Even the most liberal of individuals, many of them public intellectuals, have personally called me on the pretext of giving advice, for stories which needed high moral courage from the reporter who worked on them. These stories often fell at the interface of media, politics and corporate interests. There was particularly resistance to stories that looked at people whose records often did not sit well with the public perception they had created of themselves. Even if you asked the right questions, brought out clear conflicts of interest, then the advice was not to “moralise.” Journalism devoid of a conscience and moral courage is what most people in the status quo would be happiest with in today’s India. But you should not give in. 

Globally speaking, people who have applied their minds to this subject for a long time admit that teaching or learning moral courage and cultivating a conscience are among the hardest things to do in journalism. But it is not impossible. Much in the way that physical courage is taught at the National Defense Academy, at military schools and even in neighborhood martial-arts centres, moral courage can be cultivated in a journalist. She can teach it to herself, learn it at a journalism school, learn it from a newsroom, learn by studying others who perhaps lived in a different era or different country and faced both different and similar challenges. As a journalist you might be so frail that a mere push from a bystander can make you fall. You might not have any social capital, and therefore people may not come to your protection when big powers decide to harass you. You may come from classes, castes, genders or geographies that are discriminated against. You may be a nobody in a big city. But nothing shall stop you if you have moral courage, if your stories take on the most important powers in the land—the prime minister of the country, the president of the republic, the chief justice of the supreme court, the richest man on earth, it does not matter. If you have the right story, and the moral courage to stand tall, the world is yours. 

You, after all, have the power of information. The power of truth. Powerful people and their agents might ignore you. They might try to make you look crazy. Your story may not have a visible impact. Business may continue as usual. But you have done your job. The public duty of journalism is fulfilled when you demonstrate moral courage through your work. The rest is on the society, and its conscience. 

This takes us to the fourth essential aspect of journalism—the constant improvement of subject-area expertise. Journalists, by definition, are jacks of all trades, and the masters of perhaps some. All of us need to constantly push ourselves to gain more knowledge in as many areas as possible. We must also strive to overcome our prejudices. Our subject areas could span a wide range of disciplines, including history, sociology, political science, culture, economics and law. They need not even follow rigid disciplinary areas. But since this is how we compartmentalise knowledge today, let me pick two disciplines: sociology and history. 

Sociology, the science of the life of human beings in society, is among the most useful disciplines for a journalist. In the West, as this discipline evolved, the chief area of study initially was social class. Then came race, and the way it determined an individual’s social position. In India, including in academia, sociology is among the most unfashionable disciplines. Many sociologists in India are known more for their works of history or political science, disciplines that are better placed for book contracts and public recognition. History relies primarily on documents, and hence the library or archive is your main hangout. Sociology, by contrast, demands far more fieldwork and primary data-collection. Lacking favour, Indian sociology creates a body of original research far smaller than it should. 

Is this the result of just a migration of tastes and interests, or have individuals actively chosen to stay away from engaging with the biggest and hardest social reality in India—caste? A genuine love for sociology would make an expert in the subject dive deep into caste—the chief filter of Indian society. But given the privileged, upper-caste backgrounds of most academics, they choose to look the other way. Putting aside theoretical works, the original material they produce on caste is minimal. This means there is not a substantial body of scholarship, of field studies, on caste. By comparison, American sociologists are miles ahead on the study of race. Since journalists often consult academic work on a subject and are educated by academic experts, caste has become a blind spot for Indian journalists, too. Ideally, journalists, more than anybody else, should find sociology to be the most important stream of knowledge, because all ideas that interest journalists are related to human society. Journalism is much poorer if you choose to ignore a major aspect of society. 

The second discipline I want to look at here is history. 

The journalist’s relationship with history is a little more complex. She needs to know historical facts and understand historical processes, and she will need a grasp on the tools of history to evaluate how truthful and accurate her work is, and how her work will be used by future historians.

The Victorian-era historian John Seeley famously said, “History is past politics, and politics is present history.” If this is true, a journalist is writing history for tomorrow’s people; for today’s politics, she is writing the daily minutes. The main question, then, is how accurate is the account that the journalist is creating. Is the journalist painting as comprehensive a picture as possible? Or is the journalist just recording a bunch of public-relations statements as the minutes of our daily politics? Are these sanitised versions going to be counted as history in the future? 

In the past six or seven years, with the Modi juggernaut conquering all of India’s institutions, journalists’ recording of contemporary times has become especially bad. Whenever political bosses have shown their displeasure, media proprietors have obediently fallen in line. Editors with no self-respect have chosen not to resist proprietors’ pressures, and have killed important stories filed by reporters. Nowadays, an astute editor will not kill a story outright. He will instead indefinitely delay its publication, and will leave little room to question his judgment. Slowly, the folder of unpublished stories on a reporter’s computer keeps growing.

A vast majority of reporters are forced to get by without putting out their best work. They will be encouraged to produce work sans historical awareness, which, if exercised, would have given the work character and longevity. They plough along, unsatisfied with the mediocrity forced upon them by the system, and hope that brighter days await. A few clever ones who understand the system well have found stories to work on that are seen as socially bold but do not harm big political interests. In the current climate, stories around cultural nationalism serve as an example. You see stories centred on low-hanging fruits—cow vigilantism, pub attacks, a crazy politician making a wild statement. But these stories do not effect the biggest political powers. 

In rare cases, a powerful company or banker that has fallen out of favour with the government may also be boldly pursued. But this is because the big interests want to see someone punished. When it comes to organised loot and crime at the highest levels, journalists by and large are not allowed to get closer to the truth. 

Fifty years later, if you turn back and read the narratives sculpted from today’s journalism, you will see a highly sanitised India. Today’s journalism would throw up almost no material worth returning to when it come to the top seven interests—what I call the seven pillars, or the sapta stambh—of India’s power elites. The first four are the Prime Minister’s Office, the National Security Advisor, the Finance Ministry and the president of the ruling party. Then come the Reliance and the Adani Groups—the two biggest corporations growing exponentially in these times. And, finally, India’s defence sector, which eats up three lakh crore rupees every year, and has an interest in maintaining tensions in the subcontinent so as to keep the country’s defence budget among the highest in the world.

The near-total silence and severe lack of critical investigation on these seven interests is contrary to the established principles of journalism, to all that it is meant to stand for. Of course, you could add a few more interests to these. At the state level, there are regional variants of the big national interests. But my point is that if a journalist’s role is to write on contemporary politics and policies, on big decisions, then journalists are fulfilling far too little of their purpose. In that sense, thousands of journalists employed by big newspapers and television networks are simply not allowed to do real journalism. Their work will have very little archival value. 

Politics, economics, science, law—there are an infinite number of disciplines, and a journalist is on a life-long mission to constantly push her horizons in all these areas and produce better work as she goes along. Of course, in each of these, there are thousands of volumes’ worth of material. It seems impossible to make great headway, even in a lifetime. But the fact that there is so much to learn is a humbling lesson in itself.

This brings us to the final point: craft. 

Craft is anything and everything attached to the form of your journalism. The language you chose to use. The aesthetics attached to the chosen form. The presentation, structure, characters, visual appeal—these factors all matter in multimedia journalism. 

Most journalists associate the idea of craft with language alone. Yes, language and the beauty of your prose are very important. How well you bring a character to life can make a piece of journalism very memorable. But limiting craft just to language is a huge misreading of the journalistic craft. This one-size-fits-all view can be counterproductive, especially given that form varies across different kinds of pieces. 

In news reporting, for instance, you cannot test the patience of the reader. The tried and tested inverted pyramid still holds as a guiding structure. News reporting cannot morph into opinion writing. An investigative reporter might use only a tiny fraction of what she finds out, and anything that might kill the prospect of further digging might stay in her notebooks, unexposed to the world at least for now. A feature writer might present all the quirky information she discovered, trying to paint the full picture as she has seen it. If a reporter adopts the same approach she is used to in feature writing while doing an investigative story, she could easily be duped by the first person she speaks with who has a scripted account to share, prejudicing her narrative. 

From one form of journalism to another, aspects of craft will also vary. The net and the tact required to catch sardines are different from those used to ensnare sharks, and vice versa. A carpenter uses different timber for different structures—for a bridge and a house, for instance—and has different tools for different projects. Often, separate tasks require entirely different skill sets. But with practice and experience, journalists can develop a certain level of mastery in all aspects of journalistic craft. 

Joseph Pulitzer wrote, “The knowledge that a reputable journalist would refuse to edit any paper that represented private interest against the public good would be enough of itself to discourage such an enterprise.” In today’s India, few journalists live up to Pulitzer’s expectations. AP Photo

WITH THESE FIVE points listed, I do not mean to suggest that you have an enormous task ahead of you. It is just a simple orientation that I intend to communicate—your study has not ended. It has actually begun. And this is a good thing. The moment you know journalism is both fun and gives meaning to your life, none of the challenges I listed above will be a huge task. Just like cooking is not a huge task if someone really enjoys it, like playing cricket is not a task if someone really likes the game, like dancing is not a task if it moves someone. Your learning in all five aspects—and also the duty of pushing the people around you to grow with you—is as much a part of the game of journalism as is chasing a ball on the cricket field if you are a fielder, or learning to bat against reverse swing if you are a batsman. 

In outlining these five aspects, I have also tried to give you an accurate picture of the industry’s standards. Unlike in the scenario envisaged by Pulitzer and many other well-wishers, journalism today is in the grip of private interests pursuing commercial goals. Barring in a few exemptions, the public duty of the profession is at stake, and at the mercy of media owners. Does that mean you should not enter this world? Not at all. On the contrary, you must enter this world, and try to be the change. And when you are the change, you will generate small changes around you. Eventually, a day will come when you can turn this into big changes. 

Now that you are being thrown into the larger world of the media, you are bound to see a lot of muck around you. To stand in the middle of the muck and not to let it taint you is hard work. To stand in the muck and attempt to clean it with the tools you have, is the task that lies before you. The longer you do it, the more efficient you become. This will require not just skill, but also tact, and a good deal of patience.

In today’s India, most of your employers in journalism are likely to be one of the following: an oilman, a telecom man, a cement man, a mining man, a moneylender, a defence middleman, a property developer or a politician. You will have to intern for their outlets and take up jobs they offer to you. Unfortunately, this is the reality of what everybody calls “mainstream journalism.” 

In spite of this, you must stand steady and clear-sighted even in the middle of muck. This is part and parcel of being a journalist. There will be friction, and major differences of opinion, but you must choose to go through the grind. So, take up the job without any qualms.

Once you have the job, what do you do? No matter who owns the paper or channel, no matter how compromised the editor or proprietor is, as a young reporter, there is enough room for you to grow in all the five aspects I listed—news instinct, judgment, moral courage, subject-area expertise and craft. The first and the last two will add the most to your value at your media outlet. With every story, you need to get better at these particular three aspects. 

Your attempts to exercise judgment and moral courage, however, are likely to generate friction in most newsrooms in India today. This is where you will need wisdom. You will have to gauge when you should avoid fighting like a tigress and instead be prudent like a snake. You must know when you can gently tell your boss that your judgment is different—just let her know in a friendly way. Do not fight over every difference of opinion in the early years. Try to find the most intelligent argument to show why you disagreed with the boss’s decision. State it as innocently as a dove. You may be surprised by this, but communication studies suggest that this strategy will eventually work. 

In some cases, even editors who have continued to kill story after story are, after a certain threshold, open to changing their minds. I am not saying this will work all of the time. But your non-confrontational conduct in the early years, while sticking to your different opinion on meritorious stories, has the chance to turn things in the long run. When you challenge your editor, stick only to the merits of the story at hand. Do not go down an academic, rhetorical route. But on story after story, assignment after assignment, ticker after ticker, tweet after tweet, headline after headline, hashtag after hashtag, you can respectfully disagree and put forward your points. 

Even if you generate friction and develop a reputation for disagreeing with your bosses’ compromised journalistic position, they will still want you because you are excellent in the first and the last two aspects of your job. They will not let you go. That means you cannot afford to be average in the first and the last two. Strive towards excellence. Be so good that you become someone the organisation depends on. And that will give you great legitimacy with the middle two aspects. Eventually, you will see some success. 

It might come in the form of a position working out for you somewhere better. Once you join the new place, you might find that many things are also difficult there, or only slightly better. There, too, you will do the same things you did before. But because you are so good with your news instinct and area expertise and craft, and because you are a reliable colleague, they will not let you go. 

I know these spells will not be easy. But bear it—do not leave the kitchen, do not run away from the heat, especially in the initial years of your career. Eventually, you might become part of a dream newsroom, or create that newsroom yourself. These battles are part of being a journalist. This is because you are fighting untruth and injustice head-on in this profession—and the forces that abet untruth and injustice are great. The news media is a dangerous tool in the hands of immoral interests. But the moral force behind truth and justice is even greater. 

Standing up for truth and justice is too moralistic an endeavour for many people today. This is because they have a problem—either they have a murky record to hide, or they are agents of big interests and have relationships to protect, or they hold positions in society from which they are afraid they will be dislodged. But you have to trust the people who laid the foundational principles for this profession, the people who insisted on making reporting sharper, more accurate and more forceful. They wanted us to hold power accountable. Not just political power, but all kinds of power. If, in the process of you doing your job, people get uncomfortable, rest assured that your work had an impact. If there is a lesson on this I would like to share, it is that people will disappoint you no matter who they are in this profession. And from this comes an age-old principle of the profession: Do not follow people as icons, follow principles as your guiding light. 

As a result of this principle, in today’s India you will have far fewer personal friends if you are a journalist than if you had chosen some other career. When I moved to Delhi nineteen years ago, or even eleven years ago when I started with The Caravan, I had many more friends. But as a journalist in Delhi, I am afraid you can do justice to only one thing: you have to choose between the profession and the friendships. Some of them are lost over big stories, some even over book reviews. Relations may not stay the same, and if you lose friends for principles, that is okay. And if a reporter is scrutinised over every single story she puts her byline to, an editor must be ready to lose friends over anything that anyone ends up writing in her publication. You may not agree with what your writers end up writing. But some friendships could become transactional, and the report in question could become a test of loyalty for the person concerned. An editor cannot kill a story because that is what a friend wanted. 

So it is better to cultivate friendships far away from the centres of power and social influence. And the more eclectic the backgrounds that your friends come from, the more they can help you learn new things as well. Sadly, I have seen very few journalists build relationships outside of the limited professional and social circles they already move around in. 

This is not meant to alarm you. But, as a journalist, it is good to understand this part of what the job entails.

Some people think an editor is very powerful. But in a principled newsroom, an editor is not as powerful as people may think. A scene in the British political satire Yes, Prime Minister captures this quite well. Jim Hacker, the fictitious prime minister of the United Kingdom, is appalled when he sees something in a newspaper that he considers an official secret. He invites the newspaper’s editor, Derek Burnham, to lunch, in an attempt to charm him and win him over. The conversation initially goes round in circles, with the editor not giving in much, increasing the prime minister’s frustration. Finally, he asks the editor directly. 

“So I want you to retract that suppression story,” Hacker says.

Burnham replies, “I don’t see how I can.”

“Well, of course you can!” Hacker says. “You’re the editor, aren’t you?”

“Yes, but an editor isn’t like a general commanding an army,” Burham tells the prime minister. “He’s just the ringmaster of a circus. I mean I can book the acts, but I can’t tell the acrobats which way to jump.”

An editor can be powerless in his own organisation when a story comes out on its merits.

Another way to consider an editor’s job concerns the reputational risks she faces among her colleagues. In 2009, I told a dear friend of mine in New York that I was moving back to India to lead a magazine. He said he had just one piece of advice. “You be prepared to be called a bastard,” he said. Because editors take decisions that have to do with procedures, editorial standards and administrative concerns, they are often viewed as the bad guys in a newsroom. The editor nags people to keep deadlines. In the process, the editor often does not meet her own deadlines. The editor pushes people to put in more labour, often sending reporters back to the field, back to a source, or in some cases waking reporters up at three or four in the morning to catch a flight or start writing to meet a deadline. An editor might stand up to a proprietor who asks her to go slow on certain stories, or to reduce reporters’ travel expenses, which could hurt the quality of their journalism. But mostly, it is an editor’s own colleagues on the desk and among the reporters who will call her names. For many, an editor is a nagging, brutal, sweatshop-running bastard. And one must be prepared to go to the grave with that reputation. 

Reporters have their own angst. A reporter is someone who could be stonewalled at every turn in her professional life. A reporter could be ridiculed publically by a potential source, or even be threatened with physical attack. A reporter might often get thrown out from an office. I have heard a top editor in a former moneylender-owned newspaper say he did not like to do reporting, because he did not like to call people up. He also did not like to take notes. Of course, he is from a certain top caste, from the most privileged background. 

I have increasingly come to believe that privileged people who want to do well in journalism must make a serious effort to immerse themselves in the heat and sweat of the profession—to be willing to be thrown out by a potential source, to be insulted, or worse. And this is where people from not-so-privileged backgrounds do not have the same hang-ups. Young journalists with privileged upbringings have to work harder at being good reporters. 

I want to leave you with a few lines I scribbled in my notes some time ago. They might, I hope, be insightful. I have given them the headline “Reporting”. 


Pen, notepad, a talker
Questions asked, answers given
Things watched, felt
Reporting plainly is telecasting
Reporting wisely is making sense of a reality

If you’ve used a spade, you must be a reporter
Because, reporting is digging

If you’ve been violated, you must be a reporter
Because, reporting is trying a violator

If you’ve carried shit, you must be a reporter
Because, reporting is carrying shit without becoming the shit

Reporting is a marriage of three people
Journalism, language and scholarship 
In some, one is a dominant partner, in some, two, in some all three
Except in this marriage, the partners never divorce

Reporting is literature
The beauty is in finding things unknown, which are often ugly
The release is in telling a real story, for public good
Reporting is staying in bed with reality, however dirty it must be
You live not in the make-believe world
You sleep with the lover called reality
You embrace the time, characters and tension as is
You detest the sweat, blood and vulgarity of real things
But you’re in a marriage with reality
Because someone ought to make sense of reality
Reporting is real
And reporting, therefore, is real literature