At 23 when I joined journalism no one told me…

Posted: August 31, 2013 in survival, Women
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,
Confessions of a woman journalist from India

Confessions of a woman journalist from India

…My protection will be my responsibility, almost always. Editors, HR Heads who conducted my interviews said: “If you have to get into reporting, these are a few things you have to keep in mind:

  • You will have to keep long hours and you don’t know when you will go home.
  • You will cease to have a social life.
  • Don’t blame your job if you break up with your boyfriend.
  • If you think journalism is only about glamour, please don’t join.”

There was one thing that no one ever said though:

  • You will have to throw caution to the wind and get the job done if that means jeopardizing your own safety. And if you are not careful, you don’t know what you will land up in.

That is something that I learned on the job.

Baptism by fire

On the first day of my first job, my boss told me she had news that a very famous Indian singer was staying in a five-star hotel in Kolkata and if I could give him a call and find out if he would give us an interview. I was nervous because I hadn’t spoken to a celebrity before but the singer was sweet enough to agree to the interview.

Then I said: “I will come at 6pm for the interview. Should I come up to your room?” He said, “Okay. Please do.” I hung up satisfied that my first effort at getting an interview was going well.

But my boss was in peals. “Amrita, you should have never asked him if you could go to his room. He could take it as a cue for something else…you know….something more than just the interview…you get it, right?”

I wasn’t convinced I had done a faux pas. I argued back, “But I am a journalist asking for his interview, why would he think of ‘something else?’” My boss looked at me kindly… “It’s your first day at the job. In six months you will know what I mean.”

Now I began to get scared. So I coaxed and cajoled my boss to come along with me to the interview and she was sweet enough to relent. I called the singer from the hotel house phone and he asked me to join him in his room. After opening the door, when he saw my boss and the photographer, he couldn’t hide his surprise. He blurted, “I thought you were coming alone.”

His room was in a mess with his clothes strewn all around along with his under garments – definitely not the kind of room in which you wait for a journalist about to do an interview for a newspaper. He shoved the clothes underneath the comforter and got down to doing the interview, got friendly with all of us and impressed us with his knowledge of music.

But on my first day at a newspaper job he did give me a valuable lesson – to say it right, because men out there always look for cues. One wrong sentence and you never know what you are going to land yourself in.

And in the next six months, as my boss said, I learned a lot more. That’s why when a famous Bengali singer started giving me an interview only in his pyjamas, flashing his fleshy chest at me, I could tell him politely it would be nice if he could put on a piece of clothing while we spoke. He obliged.

That’s why when a 55-year-old Bengali writer asked me how I would feel if I was asked to kiss him, I could tell him I would be feeling like I am kissing my father and when one of the top stars of Bollywood wouldn’t stop smoking on my face I could tell him I would prefer to conduct the interview from the other end of the room and ended up doing just that.

In the film 15 park Avenue Konkona Sen Sharma plays the role of a journalist, who is raped when she go to a small town to cover the political situation there.

In the film 15 park Avenue Konkona Sen Sharma plays the role of a journalist, who is raped when she goes to a small town to cover the political situation there. Here also she went alone because she had to prove a point to her boss and to her boyfriend.

It’s always about getting the story

Journalism is a profession where you are constantly interacting with people from all walks of life and what often gets to me is the lack of respect at times women face because of this job. And back in the office, what only matters is whether you have got the story or not. If you say you didn’t because you were concerned about your personal safety chances are you would be treated as a lesser mortal. And that’s when it starts happening. Women start putting their own safety in the backburner in the pursuit of a story, to prove a point, to prove they are equally good or even better than their male counterparts.

When I read the account of the Mumbai rape victim in DNA http://www.dnaindia.com/mumbai/1880414/report-dna-exclusive-account-of-the-hellish-evening-when-mumbai-gang-rape-happened my first thought was what was she thinking? These men were clearly leading her on. Then I realized she is only 23, maybe just out of college, raring to go, raring to prove a point with her camera. Nothing else probably registered, nothing else mattered.

I think journalists are often conditioned like army men. Follow the orders and get the story. And if you don’t, be prepared to be court martialed in the editor’s room. On top of that if a competing publication gets the story and you couldn’t, God help you.

My safety comes first

I remember once my boss asked me to go to a Kolkata disco to interview a starlet as late as midnight. When I asked for the office car he told me, “Just hail a cab.”

I said, “It might be 2am before I finish the interview. I can’t go home so late on my own.” He retorted, “Just get the story.”

I could not imagine hailing a cab at 2am from Camac Street. I decided not to go to the assignment. Next day all hell broke loose. The allegations against me were insubordination and lack of commitment. In two seconds all my exclusives, all my late night desk work and my supposed “positive attitude” was forgotten. I didn’t care though. I was safe and that was what mattered.

A few months down the line I was sent for another assignment by the same boss, to cover a clothing exhibition at a five star hotel at a decent time – 7pm. By then, I was almost two years into the profession, had developed sharper instincts and an even sharper tongue. The first thing that struck me was that the exhibition was at a suite and not at the banquet, as it usually happens. I went to the suite and rang the bell. A gentleman opened the door and invited me in. I was about to step in, but I noticed there were at least 10 men seated there, drinking, talking boisterously and looking at me lustfully. I could not spot any woman around. When I enquired about the clothes the man at the door said it was in the bedroom. My inner voice told me not to step in. I did not. I handed the man my visiting card and told him to send me the photographs of the clothes and a write-up. The man looked very disappointed and some of the men had by then got up and joined him in his appeals to me. I left.

Next day I described the scenario to my boss and asked him what was I supposed to do? This time he agreed with my decision and didn’t haul me up for not doing an assignment. Needless to say the photographs and write-up were never delivered to me as promised by the man at the door.

Trust your instincts and get out

When I look back and think of my experiences I sometimes wonder would it have been better to be in another profession? My inner voice always says a firm NO. True. Sometimes there has been disrespect, but more often than not it has been compensated by ample respect. There have been negative experiences but also enriching experiences and most importantly experiences that have made me a stronger person, moulded me into someone who can’t be pushed around or taken for granted.

But after the Mumbai incident one thing I have realized is that women joining journalism should know personal safety is always bigger than the story. And in this profession it is but obvious you will be on a sticky wicket every other day. If your instinct says something is amiss just follow it.

Headlines come and go but your life doesn’t.

And going by the court verdict today where the juvenile involved in the Delhi rape case (the one who mutilated Nirbhaya with an iron rod) has been given three years in a juvenile home, women journalists will have to work harder towards protecting themselves now because the law is surely not coming to their rescue anytime soon.

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Comments
  1. Swapan says:

    Kichu sriti aajo tara kare amakeo…dada chobita chapa hobeto, kato dite hobe bolunna…ba aaro kichu….jodi ditehoi!area jetam boss k janatam

    • amritaspeaks says:

      Dear Swapan,
      True some memories are still so alive. I remember you sat at Park Hotel lobby all day to get a snap of Om Puri who was shooting in town. And you got that exclusive photo for us.

      Yeah i know what you mean the desperation to get into a newspaper is sometimes scary especially with newcomers.

      Amrita

    • Sushmita Biswas says:

      Amrita di lovely piece to read and I remember you shared with me the singer story when I entered journalism. Really, I agree with you, your safety comes first and not stories.

      Sushmita Biswas

      • amritaspeaks says:

        Dear Sushmita,
        Thank you. Yes, I remember telling you the singer story and a few other stories too which I have not written here 🙂

        Stay connected
        Amrita

  2. theonlysup says:

    Amrita . Fantastic Post to read. I should be treating this as not just a post but may be an alert , a lesson , or an awareness and a message . i got couple to points to share

    all above points your HR and editor said while reporting applies to IT field also 😉

    b)Yes i consider personal safety more important than office work .
    i believe in Living with honour than compromising on our self esteem ,dignity and safety for sake of task completion or as u say “taking up assignment ad getting a story”, jeopardizing your safety and dignity
    I see lot of women and made to work late at night and are not provided enough facilities to ensure their safety.

    +100 likes for such a post . Good job .
    Good luck ,cheers
    Supreet

    • amritaspeaks says:

      Dear Supreet,
      Thank you. You are right IT industry has similar work hours. Sadly it is not always possible to put your foot down. A classic case is travelling late in the night with the car driver. Even if you feel unsafe you have to because there is nothing else you can do about it. We were always lucky to have very nice people as our drivers but there have been so many times the police has stopped the car while I was alone in it and kept asking inane questions despite seeing the Press tag. Then once the over worked driver fell asleep and banged into the road divider. But can you say no to a good job because of this? you can’t.
      Thanks again for your appreciation for my post and thanks for the good wishes.

      Cheers
      Amrita

  3. I really liked this post. Shared it too. Want all women journalists to read it.

  4. bonny says:

    Amrita, truly useful post for all working women.

  5. amritaspeaks says:

    Thank you so much Soumya,
    I would also thank male colleagues like you, whose sharper instincts, advice and willingness to help us out in difficult situations always kept us safe.

    Thanks again

    Cheers
    Amrita

  6. rahul says:

    great info for young women journalists ………….

  7. Poornima says:

    Hi Amrita,

    Nice post – informative and entertaining

    cheers
    Poornima

  8. Amazing article amrita…Do come up wd more facts, love to read it

  9. Nayanee says:

    Buntydi, after reading this post I feel like thanking you and thanking you… I am sharing it on Facebook. I wish people would write as simply and clearly in the newspapers.No one seems to want to address that which one needs to and as you have shown through this post it can be done simply if you want to.

  10. Sudip Ghosh says:

    This is an extremely important post at this moment and in the context. Thank you Amrita for taking time out and reacting with such speed. Sharing this on my FB page

  11. Secular upa is not worried about India’s internal security. All major channels and newspapers have been careful in not blaming the govt.

    Enjoy this hell while you live in this country ruled by upa.

  12. Madhu says:

    I do think the bosses are equally culpable. What were they thinking??? But most of all i despair at what our country has become. At the fact that young girls like you have to be constantly alert to mindless violence and assault.
    We are going to Delhi later this month, and we asked ourselves if we would be comfortable walking around late at night like we did in Paris or Cairo or even Rio. The answer sadly was no. Not comfortable anywhere in India, not even in our small towns anymore.

    • amritaspeaks says:

      Dear Madhu,
      I agree with you. I guess a late night walk in any part of India has not been possible for sometime now. But what irks me is in the last couple of years the fear that has touched all our lives because of so many reported cases.

      Amrita

  13. Priyanka says:

    makdi, guess, we have too many such memories to share… shared your post on my fb page… lovely talking to you the other day… prinks

    • amritaspeaks says:

      Dear Priyanka,
      You are absolutely right. We know each others experiences by heart I guess 🙂 and I know you also had a shirtless singer experience once. If mine was a Bengali singer, your’s was a more famous veteran singer at a national level.
      Sure was great talking you that day. It was actually a lovely surprise. Will connect soon.

      Cheers
      Amrita

  14. Tarun says:

    Awesome read…I think everyone has something to take back especially for those who have any association with journalism/ jouranlists.

  15. Ranajit Dhar says:

    Excellent and relevant post. Thank you dear writer.

  16. ganeshputtu says:

    Ahhh…the story behind the story..interesting to read what journos have to go through everyday just to keep up with their jobs….an eye opener really…

  17. deepaul says:

    its knowing what could go wrong, survival in this mad world ! great share !

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