Who Gives A Damn?
By Raj Chengappa

"If you don’t move out of the office and get the story, you’re fired!" yelled my editor, P.N.A. Tharakan. Given the mood that he was in, it was no empty threat. He waved a letter we had received the previous week from a doctor, who said that he had spotted a woman suffering from severe malnutrition at the city railway station, and wanted us to do something about her.

I had just finished the mass communications course from Bangalore University, where Tharakan, till then a veteran news agency journalist, had taught the fundamentals of good reporting. He was amongst our favourite teachers, both for the zest that he brought to his lectures and the narration of his scoops. Soon after we passed out of the course in June 1977, Tharakan said he was giving up his job as chief of bureau to launch a weekly city tabloid newspaper, The City Tab, with his savings. Four of us, all Tharakan’s students, agreed to join, delighted not to have to look for jobs and at the prospect of our first salaries.

Publishing weekly meant we had to hunt for a cover story that would get people to pick up our newspaper from the stands. Tharakan didn’t want us to do the usual political reports or indulge in sensational tabloid journalism. Instead, the pages had to be filled with good, hard-nosed news that dealt with the triumphs and travails of Bangalore’s citizens. It was easier said than done. On many weeks there would be a desperate scramble to find a powerful story; the morning Tharakan threatened me with dire consequences was one such.

When I reached the railway station, I finally located the destitute woman. She was in bad shape; only a torn gunnysack covered her emaciated body. Her unwashed hair was crawling with maggots; too weak to move, she urinated and defecated where she lay. Since I had to do my job as a reporter, I shook her gently to find out how she had come to such a state of despair. She was too feeble to even open her eyes, so I decided to get her a glass of milk. Ignoring the maggots, I lifted her head and fed her the milk. Another footpath dweller, the wife of a cobbler, came to my rescue and got her to drink the milk. Meanwhile a sizeable crowd of curious onlookers gathered at the scene. Some threw coins at us; others spat and went away.

When some life seemed to return to the woman, I got down to the job of collecting facts for my story. I asked her name. The woman’s eyes lit up momentarily and then went blank as if to say that having a name was of no longer of any consequence. I shot her other questions: Where did she come from? Did she have a family? Again, only her eyes answered me, flickering with recognition at the import of the questions before their light was snuffed out by the apparent hopelessness of her state.

I decided to get her medical attention. I called the superintendent of the largest government hospital in the city, whom I knew. He said that his ambulances were busy, but if I brought her to the hospital he would ensure that she was treated on priority. The Municipal Corporation, which had ambulances on standby, brushed aside my request to send one across. In desperation I approached the City Police Commissioner, also a friend, who said that as a special case he would spare an accident relief vehicle.

By then I realised that this was drama in real life and called a photographer to rush to the spot. We photographed the entire sequence: her lying on the footpath; crowds assisting us to lift her into the ambulance; the hospital where her hair was shaved off to get rid of the maggots before she was put on a clean bed and given treatment. Unfortunately, she was too far gone, and the next day the doctors called up to say that she had died. They only got to know her name: Lakshmi.

We ran the entire episode as our lead story with the banner: WOMAN DIES OF STARVATION and a kicker below: Abetted by pass-the-buck rules and an insensitive city. The impact was instantaneous. The Municipal Corporation Chairman called up to say that he was assigning two new ambulances with telephone numbers for anyone who wanted to help destitutes. Our office was flooded with calls from people who had spotted people in a similar condition, asking how they could go about rescuing them.

Few stories that I have done in my twenty-eight years as a journalist have had such an impact on me as that of Lakshmi’s plight. Since then I have reported extensively on a range of subjects whether on environment, science, health, politics, business, international affairs and even India’s nuclear tests. Throughout these years of chronicling contemporary events, when I look back, the reports that satisfied me the most were the ones in which I could get the reader to relate to people or events I wrote about with emotion and get them deeply involved in the story. And make them believe that, howsoever small they were in the scheme of things, it was still in their power to make the difference.

Around the same time that I wrote the report on Lakshmi, I had a visitor to my office, a deaf-mute who wanted to explain to me how he felt society perceived his handicap. Since I didn’t follow sign language, we spent an hour conversing by writing on pieces of paper. So powerful was the way he presented his case that we carried the report in that format. That, too, saw a wave of letters flow in, and his grateful father presented me with a book that I still cherish, The Art of Creative Interviewing. It was here that I first got to read about the question that professors in American schools of journalism taught their students to ask whenever they started on a report: "Who Gives A Damn?"

For me it was a powerful question, one I ask myself even today when I set out to do a story. Journalists tend to get so caught up with the story that they assume an equal level of reader interest in events happening not just around the city but also the country and the world. But why should a reader in Delhi or Bangalore care about people dying of starvation in Darfur in Sudan? Why should we be subjected to daily reports of the shoot-outs in Baghdad instead of more in-depth reports of what is happening in our own cities and towns? How do you get an urban reader involved in the plight of women in villages who have to walk kilometres every day to fetch a bucket of water or collect firewood? Why should the poaching of tigers be of such interest when a majority have not seen the animal in the wild and probably never will?

Never have these questions been more relevant for journalists as they are today. As the world shrinks and the proverbial global village becomes a reality, our readers and viewers are being bombarded by images and reports of the goings-on in the remotest corner of the globe. Of people and places they have never seen or never will. Of events that have little impact on their daily lives except perhaps to be of limited curiosity value. It may seem blasphemous to ask, but why should Tony Blair’s re-election as Prime Minister of UK be banner headlines in Indian newspapers? Why should Vladimir Putin’s efforts to retain an iron grip over Russian politics be of any concern to an Indian salesman in Hyderabad? People unconnected with these developments need to be told why they should care about them. I believe most of us are failing to do that job.

Let’s turn the searchlight closer home and ask ourselves the same deep and perhaps troubling questions: Who cares? Why should they? What really interests’ readers or viewers? Some answers are easy. A woman is raped in Delhi; naturally its citizens want to know the details of the crime and what the city police have done about it. Such an incident directly threatens the security of every family in Delhi. But should someone in Bangalore, who might never visit Delhi, be equally concerned, and if so why? Or why should the news of Indian garment exports growing by 50 per cent involve a reader with no stake in the subject? Why should the victory of the AIADMK in two by-elections in Tamil Nadu be of interest to someone in Punjab and Bihar?

I could go on but perhaps I found the answer to the question about who really gives a damn while covering reports on the environment. When I went to cover the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992, the most significant moment for me was not when 150 world leaders who had assembled there spoke out in one voice to save the environment. The event that moved me the most was when Chief Oren N. Lyons, faith keeper of the Onondagas and head of the Confederation of Native Americans, spoke simply but passionately to a gathering of pressmen about the destruction of the environment. He told us: "The elders told us almost 500 years ago that there is going to come a time when you will not be able to drink the water. Water will become the enemy. That our great elder brother, the Sun, from whom all life comes, will burn and smoke and now we have global warming. That the thundering voices of the grandfathers that bring the rain will begin to kill the trees, as it happens with acid rain."

Then, talking about the future course of action, Chief Lyons said: "We were taught that every chief must have skin seven spans thick to withstand the barbs and arrows mostly from his own people and not to hold counsel only for ourselves, our family or our generation. But every decision should reflect on the welfare of the seventh generation." There was not a dry-eyed hack present when he finished his speech. And we all gave him a standing ovation. Till then the summit was filled with dense negotiations over the commitment of nations—largely bland statements that typified UN meetings. There was very little of the human touch and it was the Native American chieftain who brought home with such eloquence and feeling the reason why we had all assembled in Rio. It was while covering the environment that I discovered what I call the thread of life and the fragile but significant connection that links us all. While doing reports on biodiversity we learnt that every habitat from the thick forests in the Western Ghats to the deserts of Rajasthan and the snow-covered mountains of the Himalayas harbours a unique combination of plants and animals that live in a delicate balance. Each plant or animal living there is linked in the food web to only a small part of the other species. But eliminate one species and there is a cascading impact on all other species in the food chain, resulting in an entire ecosystem being eroded or even becoming extinct.

Postulate all this to the environment that we live in, and we begin to see the links between seemingly unconnected news events. We need to know about the struggle of a village woman to fetch water to think about where we get water from in the city and whether we will face the same shortages. We are already experiencing that in most cities, where water supply is restricted to several hours daily, and in some of them to every alternate day during summers. Also if that woman isn’t getting basic amenities in the village where she lives, it could start a chain of migration of rural families to cities and put enormous pressure on existing urban infrastructure. If there were no jobs available, they would end up as destitute as Lakshmi, or turn to begging or, worse, crime. Our families and we could become victims of such neglect.

The answer lies in understanding a concept we tend to easily forget— the complex web of connections between a nation and its citizens. There is a compact that exists between all Indians who, after Independence, agreed on certain principles that would guide this nation, of how, while working for our own well being, we would ensure that it is for the benefit of the nation and also the world; That we have agreed to live together in harmony and be governed by the rule of law; That we would ensure that all men and women lived in equality, freedom and justice; That we would elect representatives whom we believe would reflect our collective will and who would ensure that we are governed well.

Like the millions of cells that populate our body and work quietly to keep us alive, the people of a nation co-operate and contribute to ensure that the whole prospers. An errant cell can turn cancerous and impact the entire body and therefore has to be dealt at an early stage. A cut in the finger, however minor, still hurts and signals are sent to the rest of the body. The nation then is like an organic entity and part of a journalist’s job is to make its readers constantly aware of that slender connection that links us all to it so vitally. So the victory in the by-elections in Tamil Nadu is an affirmation that we are living up to our democratic ideals, and in these days of coalition politics could impact on the national government as well. A rise in textile exports could mean jobs across many sectors so we need to tell the reader where and how. If there is a breakdown in law and order in Delhi then it is a bleeding wound that could spread elsewhere to the body politic and must be treated.

There is also a global compact that we have all entered which makes events across the world relevant to each of us, even though the connections may be difficult to pin down. When I went to Kuwait in 2003 to cover the Iraq war, I had to ask why an Indian reader should be involved in the battle to evict Saddam Hussein. Was it the rise in oil prices that we should be worried about? Would the large number of Indian expatriates working in the Gulf be impacted? Why shouldn’t India be sending troops to assist the U.S.? Or conversely working with other nations to prevent the US carrying out an unjust war? When I flew to Afghanistan to cover the war against terror post 9/11, I had to again keep in mind the relevance to readers back home: That, by wiping out the rule of the Taliban, it would, in an odd way, be advantageous for India in its fight against terror in Kashmir.

Some of what I am saying is so obvious. But when it comes to the daily grind of news we quite easily forget to explain the links in the presumption that the reader is aware. The increasing popularity of vacuous city supplements is an example of just how disconnected readers are getting from the main newspapers and how easily distracted by less serious and even frivolous stuff. If there is a rape in Delhi and we are reporting it from Bangalore we need to question just how safe women are in that city. Then the relevance of the crime hits home rather than leaving the reader with only a voyeuristic view of events. We have to keep revealing to readers the link or the thread of life between them and events as disparate as the re-election of Blair, the war in Iraq or the famine in Darfur. For the degree of interdependence between nations is high; anything that happens anywhere in the world in some way, small or big, has its impact on our lives. We have to end indifference among readers or it would ultimately result in a drop of readership and reduce the mass media’s place as the main source of information.

Give this a boring tab and call it ‘relevant journalism’. But it’s the kind of stuff that would make the difference and keep readers coming back to us. It would help them understand better the complex world they live in, and make them feel less impotent in dealing with or comprehending events that always seem to happen in fast forward in the emerging new world order of things. Paradoxically, even as we control the forces of nature, as individuals we have less and less control of our own surroundings. There is a high degree of compartmentalisation in everything we do, and the thread of life and the connections are rarely visible. We may have learnt to travel faster and with more comfort in a car but if it broke down in the middle of the road, most of would not be competent to fix it ourselves. Compare this with the time we only used to have cycles, when everyone knew how to dismantle one and put it together. Technology, which is a great enabler, can also be a source of disempowerment. So it’s important that we journalists help our readers interpret the world, understand the connections and empower them with the knowledge to act if they wanted to.

Most often, while we chase the big story we forget the little things that are happening around us that probably have more relevance to readers. Journalism is also about recording people’s experiences that help us to learn about the world and ourselves. At India Today, I was travelling in a train from Delhi to Agra to do a feature on the boom of domestic tourism in the mid-’80s. I noticed a blind couple with two sighted children seated ahead of me. At the Taj Mahal, I was moved to see them walk around the monument, touching its sides to fathom its beauty. On the way back, we were in the same carriage and when we reached our destination, I offered to drop them in my taxi.

I soon discovered Mangalsain Bhalla and his wife, the couple, were better at directions than I was. For when the taxi took a left turn Bhalla screamed at him and asked him why he was taking the longer route. Surprised, I asked Bhalla how he could make all this out. He replied that he had timed the journey from the station to his house and had memorised every turn so he knew when the driver was playing up. As we kept talking my respect grew for the couple and how well they had adapted to their handicap. So I requested them to allow me to spend a few days with them trying to chronicle their remarkable life.

In the office, to the credit of my editor-in-chief, Aroon Purie, he agreed to allow me to work on such an abstract idea. Raghu Rai, India’s best-known news photographer, was instantly interested and together we put out a moving photo feature in the magazine that brought us tremendous reader response. We had mentioned that Bhalla needed a Braille thermometer to check whether his children had fever when they fell sick but couldn’t get one in India. Offers from all over the world poured in for this simple need. To me, Bhalla’s most memorable line was when I asked him if he knew what light was. His reply: "I don’t know what darkness is."

For me the need to understand the world of a blind man was self-empowering—I had forever changed my notions about the way they lived. Many of our readers who wrote in expressed similar emotions. The litmus test of the effectiveness of any article that I wrote is whether it changed the way that my reader looked at things. While doing a report on the rise in cancer, when I saw patients without one of their lungs, I quit smoking and was in some way gratified that readers wrote in saying they had also done so. When I wrote about depression and alcoholism, I was inspired by the way psychiatrist got people to take one day at a time on the way back to rehabilitation. To do the small tasks first so that it gave them the confidence of taking on bigger responsibilities. It taught me how to tackle my own simple problems of life, as I believe it did to many people who read that article. When I held the hands of orphaned children of Afghanistan and Somalia I felt they were no different from my own children. I wept at how destructive humans can be of their own societies and wrote about how we should cherish Indian democracy.

No journalist, I believe, can write with conviction unless he or she begins to understand that thread of life, that cord that binds us all, that makes us aware of the oneness of the universe that our ancient philosophy espouses. For me, journalism is a constant quest not just to find out who gives a damn but also why they should. In doing so, we empower people with the knowledge to understand themselves and the complex world around them. And bring a certain cosmos to the chaos of information that we constantly bombard them with.

Excerpted from: Indian Media: Illusion, Delusion and Reality: Essays in Honour of Prem Bhatia edited by Asha Rani Mathur, Rupa & Co. 2006.





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