A few months ago, SAJAforum asked for tips for American journalists heading to South Asia for the first time. We got some excellent responses (including some from senior journalists there and here) - please check out the comments and add your own.
The reason for the request was that there were a lot of U.S. journalists and journalism students heading to India this summer, for internships, fellowships, assignments, etc. At Columbia Journalism School, where I teach, we had four graduates heading for internships at The Hindustan Times - and that was just one school.
One of the Columbia interns, Robbie Corey-Boulet, sent us the following essay about his work in New Delhi. Please post your responses below. We'd love to run similar essays from other first-time-in-South Asia journos, too: saja[at]columbia.edu
The "Western perspective" and its perils: One summer at a New Delhi daily
By Robbie Corey-Boulet
Robbie Corey-Boulet, a Brown University graduate, is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in The Manhattan Times, The Orange County Register, Seattle Metropolitan and on various Web sites and wire services, including PBS Washington Week. He plans to return to India in January on a Pulitzer Traveling Fellowship awarded by the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University.
The 24-story high-rise next to the Hindustan Times office building, located in New Delhi's Connaught Place, houses, on its top floor, a restaurant named Parikrama. In Hindi, "parikrama" means "circumambulation," or "orbit"; the restaurant floor completes one 360-degree turn every 90 minutes or so.
Two weeks into my summer reporting internship at HT, I decided, along with the other interns, to visit Parikrama one night for a drink. After we ordered (I chose the "Manhatton"), we reviewed our first days on the job, discussing our first stories and our attempts to report them; devising a plan to ask the editor for more multimedia equipment; and recapping the set of introductory meetings the company had arranged for us, which spanned three days and culminated in a three-hour trip to the printing press.
Eventually, I lost the thread of the conversation and, while the floor creaked through another revolution, looked out the window to take in the skyline. I discovered, however, that there is no view of the skyline at night in New Delhi. The buildings do not glow like those in Seattle or New York. From high up, the only visible lights, apart from the cars, were fleeting — a burst of fireworks off to the right, or a jet passing through the frame.
In the moment, the view was a disappointment, one that added to a persistent sense of disorientation. As the summer wore on, I found it oddly evocative of my first months in India, a period during which I ran around day after day in pursuit of sources but came away, even as I completed my assignments, with only the tiniest flashes of insight into the country.
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Part of the problem was that I had no real beat. There were few restrictions placed on our pitches, and, if I tried, I could think of 10 stories each day just while reading the papers. The size of the metropolitan area, which contains an estimated 17 million people, dwarfed the two places — the Inwood neighborhood of Manhattan and my college campus — in which I had previously reported for any length of time. Consequently, I spent a lot of time searching for a starting point.
On top of this, my living situation, while convenient, also limited my view of the city. I lived with — and rode to and from work with and took my meals with — the three other Columbia interns, who, like me, had never been to India before.
The main obstacle, however, was that I could get by in India simply by talking about myself and my professional background. In fact, I was often encouraged to do so. The editors regularly asked me to report on a topic — life at Delhi University, say — "from a Western perspective," or to "write from an American angle." My initial conversations with the staff centered largely on American newspapers and how they compared, in focus and style, to their Indian counterparts. I had begun the internship eager to impress my editors and colleagues but soon realized that I already had, simply by having worked as a journalist in the U.S.
With sources, too, the focus seemed to shift invariably to me. I remember standing outside the Red Fort on the morning of Aug. 15, Independence Day, and trying to conduct man-on-the-street interviews with members of the crowd. I could get through no more than three questions before people would begin to gather around, even as Manmohan Singh, the prime minister, spoke from inside. "From which country are you?" someone would ask. "Is this your first time in India?"
This was all perfectly innocent, sure, but it seemed to me to go beyond the interest that residents of other countries customarily take in tourists. On particularly frustrating reporting days, I began to see it as a deliberate, defensive play, one that kept the focus off of India, distracting me from what I had come to learn and witness firsthand.
For me, the best way to counter this was to keep in mind the goal of removing myself, the reporter, from the equation as completely as possible.
The experiences that most reinforced this goal came while sightseeing, not reporting. On two consecutive Sundays, the company paid for the interns to visit the Taj Mahal, in Agra, and the Golden Temple, in Amritsar. The first trip, while memorable and certainly worth taking, consisted primarily of a series of uncomfortable encounters with touts, who urged us to buy half-broken trinkets or asked to take pictures with the female interns. Tourism was the main event around which the place, and our experience of it, revolved, and we left the city feeling as though we had missed something.
At the Golden Temple, we, as Western tourists, were inessential. We could walk through it unmolested, watching it function as a place of religious worship without disturbing it in the least. Even before I left, I knew I had observed and learned more than I had the Sunday before.
The lesson here, that the most instructive views of people and places often come when your effect on them is negligible, is by no means groundbreaking, at least for journalists. After all, when you're, say, profiling someone, you try to observe that person in his or her natural environment doing things he or she would normally do. As a Western reporter in India, though, the lesson proved more valuable than in any other situation I've experienced, as the barriers to detachment and the insight it yields were the greatest I've ever faced.
What to YOU think? Post your comments below.