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All for a better world

From reporting on farmer suicides to exposing illegal mining, development journalists are people determined to bring about a change in society. Rahat Bano reports.

education Updated: Jun 20, 2012 17:40 IST
Rahat Bano

A newspaper report on the suicide of a debt-ridden farmer in a Maharashtra village can shake up a jaded urban reader hundreds of miles away. An exposé on unethical medical trials in West Bengal involving anti-malarial drugs can cause a public uproar. A radio programme can wake villagers up to the need for educating their daughters or rejecting the dowry system.

Welcome to the brave world of development journalists — men and women who leave no stone unturned to bring to national attention the plight of hundreds of people suffering because of starvation, poor administration, political malpractices…

P Sainath, author of the best-selling Everybody Loves a Good Drought, in which he documented life in 10 of India’s poorest districts, does not like the tag of development journalist. However, he is one of India’s foremost chroniclers of development-focused issues, who has, on and off, trained the spotlight on farmers’ suicides in different parts of the country, on droughts, starvation cases, unemployment, the plight of the Dalits, and even corruption in the media.

The only rural affairs editor (at The Hindu) in India, Sainath is not too far from the truth when he says, “If tomorrow a bus hits me, (this species) is extinct.”

On the need for more of his kind, Sainath says, “The beats (in media organisations) exclude 70 per cent of the country’s population. There are no agriculture and labour correspondents today.” But therein lies the opportunity, he suggests. “There’s more than 70 per cent of the population to be covered.”

Things are changing now, say experts, with development-based stories visible in mainstream news platforms. Nalini Rajan, faculty member, Asian College of Journalism, Chennai, where all students have to take a course in ‘covering deprivation’, points to a programme on a popular news channel focusing on poverty and starvation.

Sunetra Sen Narayan, co-ordinator of a diploma course in development journalism, Indian Institute of Mass Communication, says she is seeing more coverage of development issues in newspapers.

“The 1990s were the years of liberalisation. The first decade of the 21st century has seen more wisdom. It is an improvement,” says Rajan, adding, “(Newspaper editors seem to realise the need as) we’re doing so poorly on human development indices… I feel hopeful.”

Shahid Jamal, who started a Ford Foundation-funded PG diploma programme in development communication at Jamia Millia Islamia, says every channel has some relevant programme, yet “there has to be more”.

“Since the liberalisation of the economy, lots of private players have come in. So, there’s a greater need to address social issues,” says Jamal.

Usha Bhasin, head of Doordarshan’s Development Communication Division, points out how development journalism can show results. As a result of Doordarshan’s award-winning health magazine, Kalyani, which creates awareness about prevention of malaria and HIV/AIDS, etc, “people in MP have begun to visit health centres, asking for Kalyani goli (pill), the (anti-malaria) chloroquine tablets,” she says.

Development journalists require creativity and that extra skill to convey their message — whether to different (or indifferent) audiences or to editors and intrusive marketers in media houses. Join this profession, says Bhasin, “if you are keen to make a difference to society.”

What's it about?
Development journalism is related to communication used for the purpose of development of human beings, individuals or society as a whole. Coined in 1968 at a Press Foundation of Asia conference in the Philippines, the term refers to the press’s catalytic role in socio-economic development in developing countries. A Western view, however, is suspicious of this kind of journalism, seeing it as a means by which the state can withhold information that it contends may affect growth. Both a way of empowerment and propaganda, development journalism covers both urban and rural poverty, the environment, agriculture, health and sanitation, gender issues, infrastructure, road safety, education, innovation, human rights, etc

Clock Work
This is the average day of a budding development journalist at an investigative news magazine:

8.30 am: Call up contacts. Fix up appointments
9.30 am: Out meeting contacts
11.30 am: On the field, reporting
1.30 pm: Lunch
3 pm: Meeting a government official for a report
6 pm: Back to office. Writing story, organising pictures, supplementary elements
for the story
8 pm: Meeting contacts over dinner
9.30 pm: Back home

The Payoff
Initially, the pay package is about Rs 1.5 lakh to Rs 3.5 lakh per annum, depending on the media organisation (news channel, newspaper or magazine), its size and location. A lot of development journalists freelance. Many development communicators switch lanes and join non-government organisations, which promise more growth and exposure

Excellent communication skills
. Good interpersonal skills
. Good general knowledge and awareness
. Ability to pitch story to TV/newspapers

How do i get there?
You can opt for any subject combination at the Plus Two and Bachelor’s levels. An aspirant may come from any academic background, but a social science degree is preferable. You need to acquaint yourself with the social sciences. Familiarise yourself with the history of the country. A postgraduate degree or diploma in journalism/mass communication or development communication might help

Institutes & urls
. Indian Institute of Mass Communication, New Delhi
. Jamia Millia Islamia
. Indian Institute of Journalism and New Media, Bangalore
. Sophia Polytechnic, Mumbai
. Asian College of Journalism, Chennai
. Xavier Institute, Mumbai

Pros & Cons
Satisfying work, as it touches lives
. A high-responsibility job.

Your work can influence the reader
. Tight deadlines
. You may have to travel to remote areas, at times risking

life and limbs
. Relatively low pay
. Limited job options (for development-based work)

Terrorism, too, is a development issue

What makes a good development journalist?
First, you should understand the issue and be able to ask pertinent questions. Second, you should simplify the issue for your readers/viewers. Third, you should be able to put the story in a presentable format that would make sense to the reader and that would make him leave the lifestyle section (of the newspaper/magazine) and read your story.

The challenge is to be good. If you are good, you can make space for a development-based story. A newspaper cannot survive without serious stuff. Every story can have a development angle. For instance, in a fashion show story, you can add two-three paragraphs on the artisans manufacturing the clothes and their issues. If the article is well written, it will sell.

This requires the usual journalistic skills. You should be curious as well as have compassion and empathy to feel for the people you are writing about. Show the issue through their eyes, without letting your biases creep in.

What are the newest development issues?
The environment is becoming more important, and terrorism, too, because if you dig deep, it’s related to under-development.

The ups and downs of the work?
If your work is socially relevant, it can be fulfilling. On the downside, development stories are difficult to sell even to editors.

Sunetra Sen Narayan, co-ordinator of a diploma course in development journalism, IIMC, DelhiInterviewed by Rahat Bano