Media..well, let me think (Pic Courtesy: Akanksha)
She was sitting on the first row. With an intense, intelligent gaze. And quiet most of the time. The classroom was like any other. Actually, perhaps better. At least brighter and airier. Large trees outside provided a protective cover. Not quite from traffic noise though. The road I turned off earlier went on to join the northern tip of Bombay’s Marine Drive. The desks were nicer too. Not beat-up, wooden ones. Like in my time. With all sorts of names and initials etched, testimony to many a belaboured hour.
Her question came at the end of the session. “Do you journalists really feel for what you do ?” I was stumped. Did I read a little more than perhaps her question really meant. Or not? Several days later, I am still not sure. “Can you explain that ?” I asked. “Hmm, for example, you talk about saving paper and all that and yet print so many newspapers.” I got the feeling the example was watered down. Her look said something else.
This was a classroom of school children between Class 8 and 10. And we were four journalists talking to them about how great and glorious the profession was. And what it took to be a hard-nosed journo. My friend Shobhan defined what a journalist’s trade was about. About asking the basic questions, What, Where, When, Who, Why and How ? Answer these questions and you have a newsman, he said. He made it sound simple.
As we fumbled for answers, another question from the back. Another eager looking girl. “How is it that the newspapers say you cannot eat chicken and the television channels say you can ?” Well. Maybe the newspaper or channel in question did not convey the message properly. And did but it got lost. But here was another 14-year-old with some serious doubts about what we were all about.
The teacher, Poorvi, joined in to hammer the last nail. “What about the kind of stuff we read and see ? Don’t journalists sensationalise too much. Particularly nowadays?” I have the answers to that one. Well, we try and reflect what the larger society wants. So on and so forth. Same answer to two different kinds of people. Hoping they accept and believe. Yet I wonder.
Poorvi has worked with consulting firm PriceWaterhouse (now PriceWaterhouseCoopers) in the US and a leading venture capital fund in India. In the latter, she must have taken million dollar investment decisions. And then she switched to teaching children. Arguably, being older and possibly well travelled, she has seen more of the world. And yet teacher and students were resonating on the same frequency. Or so it appeared.
Now, a little about the children. They were part of Akanksha Foundation, a non profit that helps teach or augment the education of children from less-privileged backgrounds. Particularly Bombay’s slum children. Akanksha is run very professionally and the stories about its success and work are legion. It benefits from the talents of many people who have done well in the corporate world. Not surprisingly, a key initiative of Akanksha is Learning to Lead, a crème-de-la-crème group of the roughly 2,600 students that are enrolled presently.
Its this group of maybe around 25 children we were talking to today. I will not say more about them and their backgrounds - Akanksha’s website is self-explanatory. What I can say is that they were very smart, articulate, insightful and intelligent. Compared to anyone and anything. Which goes to say lots for creating an almost Nehruvian selection process of this sort. Lots of people can learn from this. But that’s another story.
I will now digress a bit, only a little though. Three days later, I was at India's biggest media and entertainment conclave – Frames 2006 – organized by industry body FICCI. Held at Bombay’s suburban Grand Hyatt hotel, it was spread over three days and saw the who’s who of India’s entertainment industry participating. Including a healthy smattering of Bollywood, from actors to directors and everyone in between.
One `plenary' session was on the future of print media. Being an interested party, I attended. Malayalam Manorama’s Jacob Mathew and India Today Group’s Aroon Puri spoke. Both, essentially, said print was growing in India. And that the regional press was growing faster than English language press. To get to the point, in the Q&A that followed, someone asked Puri a question, actually two. They were: why does the media sensationalize everything ? And has news become entertainment ? Several members of the audience actually clapped in approval.
Puri, in effect, said he did not agree with a lot of things that went on air either (He owns Aaj Tak). In news and entertainment. But advertising followed TRPs, he pointed out. He quoted a few examples. For instance, he said, the best TRPs in recent weeks were not from sting operations exposing corrupt members of parliament, rather some story about a man who claimed he was re-incarnated. And so on. “I have to run a business to,” he shrugged.
Journalism, Anyone ?
Back at the Bombay International School, we were wrapping up with Akanksha. Outside, dusk was on us. And bird cries from the trees rent the air. One of us asked the children. “How many of you want to become journalists ?” Hesitation. Perhaps a hand or two. A faces-saving measure was called for. “Okay,” the question went again, “How many of you would consider becoming journalists ?”. Heads nodded. Considering was fine. More hands were raised. Not one of them looked quite convinced though.