OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS
Usha Raman’s book on Writing for the Media is a welcome addition to books of this genre considering that there seems to be a dearth of them especially by Indian authors and journalists whose focus all along appears to have been mainly on the reporting aspect of journalism. Though the author states in her preface that the four-phase approach is based loosely on Carole Rich’s “coaching method”, she follows her four C’s principle of teaching writing :conception-news thinking; collection—news gathering; construction-news writing and correction-news editing. However she orients her book towards the Indian context using mostly illustrations from Indian publications and some from the internet as well. Each chapter highlights the learning objectives and after a brief introduction of the topic a detailed explanation and illustrations follow. A new feature in this book is the inclusion of critical thinking questions named as “read, think and discuss” for the benefit of those new to the subject.
Section One “News thinking” divided into three parts talks of understanding what makes news; putting together the newspaper ;beginning to write. Under the heading News values and Priorities, Proximity is subdivided into geographic proximity and psychological proximity. The first has to do with events and issues closer home whereas in the second kind we are interested in others like us, in things we identify with, notwithstanding geographical distances. For instance, she says, when a disaster strikes halfway around the world, our interest is sparked just a little more when there are casualities from India, more so from our own cities and towns. Though the basic news values have largely remained the same over decades, their prioritizing by the editors have changed due to cross-media competition. For instance while there is still an emphasis on timeliness, the story must be “framed” a little differently in order to sustain the interest of readers who would have already heard the news item on the TV, says the author. The usage of key terms such as Infographic and Newshole are found in the first part of this section. The subsequent parts deal with how a story moves from an idea to the printed page and the different ways ideas are generated, developed and made to fit a publication.
News gathering which constitutes the second Section deals with Laying Foundations for Stories: collecting Information; Developing Sources; Interviewing: Drawing Information from People.
Research, investigation, and fact finding are all activities that should become part of a reporter’s daily routine and at the same time journalists cannot afford to ignore recent developments, such as blogs and citizen journalism which have served to expand the news source base. They do need to sift through these sources in an efficient and effective manner, without drowning in that veritable sea of facts and opinions, states the author.
Developing Sources deals with how to identify sources for a story; techniques of developing and retaining sources; how to deal with sensitive information sources; the importance of having a wide source base ;observation and documentation skills.
This part of the second section aptly begins with what veteran Associated Press Journalist Conrad Fink, who has, by his own description,”watched the sun rise over Mount Fuji and set over the Himalayas,” says (during his long and varied career as a foreign correspondent for the world’s largest news agency) :THE SOURCE BOOK IS THE JOURNALIST’S BIBLE”
In the same context she rightly adds, contrary to popular opinion, more than news stories,’’it is the features and more detailed analytical stories that use a variety of sources. Information that comes from people is what lends life to stories, and draws in the audience. Even on television, despite having the camera on location capturing events as they unfold, it is the “sound bites” that add the human angle, to any story, people talking about how an event or an issue affects them, or authorities giving the facts directly.” On the subject of anonymous and “official” Sources Usha cites two examples of how one led to a journalistic breakthrough and the other to a fictitious story where the writer won a Pulitzer Prize for her story. Subsequently the paper offered a public apology and returned the prestigious prize. Following this, The Washington Post and several other American newspapers instituted a stringent policy discouraging anonymous sources. She makes a very candid observation here “in recent years, however, the unnamed source has crept back into news stories, and you will find several instances of only thinly disguised anonymity—in the form of “official” sources or “department sources” or “authoritative sources”. These tend to be particularly rampant in stories about the government and bureaucracy—and this is true of reportage in India and abroad.”
Section Three, titled Newswriting deals with the following: Putting it all together; From “Fits” to “Starts” ; Building Body into a Story”; Taking it to the Field; Press Conferences, Press Releases, and Management Events; Development and Social Issue Reporting; Feature genres. The whole section with the exception of Development and Social Issue Reporting is very basic and theoretical in nature. Under Preparing to Report a Beat (page 28) while referring to her beat which was the computer industry she cites her own example of how she went about talking to people in the industry and interviewing her sources to do a cover story for a Computer magazine in New Delhi It resulted in a 2,500 word analytical feature, says she. (It is however disappointing not to find the reproduction of her feature in the book as an illustration of a cover story ).
Section Four: News Editing –From Copy to Printed Page offers very valuable advice and practical tips to writers in general as how to make their writing reader friendly. It condenses the rules of reader engagement into nine basic rules which should be sincerely adhered to by every writer to make his/her writing concise and interesting, which is what journalistic writing is all about.
Appendix 1: Tales from the Field has Professional journalists relating their experience which comes as an added interest apart from the sprinkling of cartoons throughout. The author with her rich experience in the field could have included other genres of writing to the media, such as sports and humour for the benefit of students pursuing the discipline of journalism and media studies.
n.meera raghavendra rao
feature writer and author
published in Vidura: issue of October-December 2010