As a bit of a self-indulgent TV journalist, I have to admit, I have become a sucker for feedback. In fact, one of the first things I do after a show is over and even before our team does an editorial post-mortem of the day’s work, is to scan my Twitter timeline. And even though it usually has random things like someone hating my hair or the colour of my kurta, I just like the fact that someone watched our work and felt provoked to write about it. It’s much nicer to hear that your story touched a chord, but in the absence of that, any engagement feels welcome. Maybe, it’s because I started working at a time when the only way of getting feedback was letters to the editor and those were usually about loftier issues that affected the country, rather than response to reporters’ stories.
But, much as I love the write back, this past week, I seem to have unwittingly entered into a debate by saying that I won’t let it affect my work. And while some perceive it as arrogance, and others may think it’s like burying my head in the sand, here’s why I believe we shouldn’t let feedback dictate our journalism.
First of all, when you are talking about doing journalism based on feedback, how do you determine which feedback to take? Do you go by the day’s top trending stories — which on a day like today would mean that I focus only on Karva Chauth or Hurricane Sandy? No, that would be really silly. Karva Chauth, most would agree, is a puff piece and is only a story about those in north India. But then, if so many people are talking about it, maybe I should explore the sociology of the opposing traditional-feminist narratives of this ritual. That would ensure that I’ve produced well-researched, cerebral work which also has much resonance, right? Don’t be silly, the ethical-moral brigade will admonish me. Report the real issues that affect the country— issues like violence against women, education, health, issues that affect the grassroots and those who have illiteracy as a problem and so cannot even write to me as feedback.
What I’m trying to say is that deciding the news agenda is a complex call that’s taken by experienced editors. Even in the same newsroom, news judgements vary deeply from one editor to the next and often lead to intense debates on the focus of a news story. But, it’s a call that the editor concerned takes and if asked, can explain and can stand by his or her decision. So, for instance, one news organisation decides to lead with the news of Hurricane Sandy because they feel it is the biggest story of the day and it affects a large number of Indians who live in America or have family there. Isn’t it as legitimate as the other news organisation’s viewpoint which decided to lead with Arvind Kejriwal’s allegations about Reliance and as legitimate as that of the one who decided to lead with the impact of Cyclone Nilam? For all of us in the news business, it’s always a tricky balance between what we think you want to know and what we think you should know.
For instance, are you interested in the internal dynamics of the social justice and empowerment ministry? If I do a poll, most will say no, but then isn’t it my job as a reporter to figure out how those boring, bureaucratic tussles are affecting crucial schemes like the anganwadi scheme?
And you don’t have to be a reporter to figure out that the piece of news will affect a significant number of people. And it’s much more of a slog to dig out things that aren’t in the public domain or part of the discourse.
The biggest whine about mainstream media seems to be questioning why certain stories are covered and certain stories aren’t. While all scrutiny and criticism is welcome, it cannot be setting editorial priorities. The reporter on the BJP beat will have to continue to look critically and objectively at the opposition party however unpopular that makes him with supporters of that party.
And the reporter on the Congress beat, like I am, has to do the same. Unfortunately, of course, people choose what they want to see. So when I interviewed Sunanda Tharoor this week because she was the newsmaker of the day, her target, Narendra Modi’s supporters, chose to overlook how I asked her about the sexist comments of senior Congress leaders like Sushilkumar Shinde and Sriprakash Jaiswal.
But that’s fine, I guess I am in the business of mass media, and not amassing support.
Sunetra Choudhury is an anchor/reporter for NDTV and is the author of the election travelogue Braking NewsOn Twitter: @sunetrac