The Purpose that Powers Women Television Correspondents

Women correspondents covering politics, conflicts and news events for television channels face daunting odds but are driven by the desire to make a difference.

When stone-pelting began in north-east Delhi’s Maujpur area on February 23 this year, 26-year-old Sukirti Dwivedi was one of the first reporters – and the only woman – on location. As multiple waves of bloodshed, property destruction and rioting were unleashed, and the police stood by doing nothing, all the television correspondents there began to fear for their lives.

“It was unsafe for everyone, not just girls,” says the firebrand NDTV correspondent. At one point, she found herself in the midst of a group of young boys, barely 17 or 18 years old, with stones and rods in their hands, their faces covered, and she noticed with a sense of foreboding that she was the only girl around. “That’s when I got scared,” she admits, adding that some senior citizens nearby came to her rescue.

After two days, as soon as the situation was under control, Sukirti – who was raised in Kanpur and had wanted to be a television journalist ever since she was a teenager – was back in the field. What she saw in the aftermath of the riots made her cry. “I broke down when I saw the school there completely burned down. The thought that there would have been children in there left me shuddering.”

Sukirti Dwivedi

Seven days of covering this kind of crisis can take a toll on anyone. “In many situations, being male or female doesn’t matter,” says Sukirti, adding that many of her male colleagues covering the riots had sleepless nights just as she did.

Broadcast journalism has seen more women joining its ranks in the past few decades, with women reporters now in parliament, covering elections, rallies, crime, corporate affairs and travelling far and wide to the interiors of the country for human-interest stories.

Most media headquarters are located in big cities, and while the job comes with its fair share of challenges even for seasoned metro-dwellers, girls from smaller towns appear to have more fire in their bellies.

Archana Shukla with her TV crewman

Archana Shukla, associate editor at CNBC TV18, was the first girl in her family to move out of Jamshedpur and start working as a journalist in Mumbai. It was a tough call for her parents 15 years ago when the microbiology student first made the move.

“My parents had their doubts. It didn’t help that the Bollywood film Page 3 starring Konkona Sen Sharma had just released and they were concerned about the safety of this profession,” she smiles. Over the years, Archana made it a habit to call her mother at least once a day wherever she was. The 36-year-old eventually made her parents proud by winning six awards for excellence in journalism.

Archana Shukla receiving the Ramnath Goenka Excellence in Journalism Award 2015 from Prime Minister Narendra Modi

But it’s one thing to allay your parents’ fears and another to deal with your own. A job such as this puts you in harm’s way more often than others, and Archana has learnt to keep her wits around her especially when she travels to the country’s hinterlands to cover social and political issues. Phone networks are often sketchy and places to stay are ill-equipped for women.

“It’s there at the back of your mind, a little fear when there is unrest. But news-gathering in television is teamwork, and we move as a crew, which is safer,” she shares.

While covering stories in far-flung areas of Bastar and Marathwada, Archana also had the experience of being mobbed, with people outraging and saying, “Media-wale kharab hote hain (mediapersons are bad).” She has now devised her own way to deal with them: “I take time, I listen to them, and then I explain myself. I remain sensitive to their concerns even while I tell their stories to the world.”

Archana Shukla at work

For correspondents covering politics, the playing field is still uneven. But Pallavi Ghosh, senior editor (politics) at CNN News 18, who has been covering Congress news for the past 18 years, sees positive signs of change. “From two or three female journos covering Parliament 18 years ago, there are about 25 now whenever Parliament is in session. It’s no longer lonely out there,” she informs.

Besides broadcast, the digital medium has also given women more avenues to step out and report news. There are now hundreds of women reporters across the country, working full-time or as stringers for websites, YouTube channels and social-media platforms, including bilingual ones.

For Pallavi, covering politics is exciting even if it’s not always smooth. “My first brush with a mob was in Baghpat, Uttar Pradesh, at an election rally in 2004. It was a huge, unruly crowd, and they went crazy to see a woman reporter amongst them. Things went out of control but my cameraman pulled me out of it,” she narrates. After that, she says, she was not scared anymore.

Pallavi Ghosh

On the day we speak to her, she is busy following Madhya Pradesh politics as former Congress leader Jyotiraditya Scindia joins the rival BJP. Quickly checking facts before going on air, she is collected and in control. Her years of experience have taught her a thing or two about dealing with male politicians.

“Some of the netas (political leaders) are very condescending and they think we women are just trying to earn some extra pocket money by stepping out to work!” says the 44-year-old indignantly.

“They even ask me, do I earn so that I can shop? So, yes, initially it was tough, but over the years more women have come into the field and that has helped. Also I think it’s important not to smile at their sexist jokes. You have to make it clear to them that you mean business.”

But the biggest challenge that on-field reporters face in India is not mobs or sleazy politicians but toilets! While Sukirti has learned to control her bladder until she finds a petrol pump when she is travelling, Pallavi carries a packet of Pee Safe in her bag.

Sukirti Dwivedi at work

In contrast, Archana, who often goes to villages, says, “Travelling has taught me lots of lessons in survival. Indians are hospitable people. I have made friends in several towns, and I use their toilets!”

The times are tough, and it’s physically a challenge, but these ladies are out there with vigour and resilience. After years of reporting and seeing things for what they really are, do reporters still remain idealistic about the profession?

“I was very idealistic when I began,” shares the young Sukirti. “I used to think, sarkar sunti hai (the government listens). For instance, if I report on street lights missing in a certain place, I thought the government would take action. But three years in journalism and my idealism is in pieces now.”

The thought that journalists could make a big difference has faded over time, adds Pallavi. “I am more pragmatic and less idealistic now,” she admits.

Despite their own disillusionment with the system, their value systems make them walk on the path of unbiased and credible reporting. As Pallavi puts it, “You should be able to look into the mirror and say, ‘I did my job well’.”

First published in eShe’s April 2020 issue

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Being on Camera – A confidence Building Workshop

Clicking a selfie or doing video calls with friends is one thing and being on camera to talk on an issue, report news or deliver content which the audience will listen to is totally another. Training students in this skill, I would call it art, is not easy and there are several factors at play. In a vigorous 12 to 15hour workshop Students are introduced to different aspects being on camera. Starting from understanding the news to various techniques and approaches that are followed by the industry to how one can create his or her own style. While making a student confident about himself/herself is half the battle won, now it’s about polishing the speech/ the way of speaking. This task takes time but in my workshop, I share a few exercises and methods through which interested students can sharpen their skill post the workshop as well. 

The workshop I took for third-year students of BMM, made me realise that voice training is as essential as look training. We did a two-hour voice session where students wrote a piece of news that they were following and have an interest in so that it’s easier for them to read and speak. While doing this we worked on skills like decision making, writing, patience, acceptance along with reading and diction. The final product of this workshop is a reporter style mojo video clip that everyone captures in their phones and a video of formal Headline + Anchor link in a Pendrive. It is shared with the students at the end of the session. Though happy with what they gained in the workshop the students realised that these skills are important as they are ready to step out in the real world.  

Giving direction to their positive thought – News Verification workshop at Hinduja

Empowering with Theatre

Theatre, an expression, an art form that has stirred revolutions, a confidence builder, it is an enabler of sorts for those who otherwise are quiet and introvert. 

I always knew the power of this art form but when I wrote a play on Fake News for children of a Municipal school in Dharavi, Mumbai it was about empowering them. It was a seven-day workshop, on day one we had a general discussion and then I told them the story. On day two I made them draw in class and then they had to do a show and tell. This helped me gauge their confidence levels, expression, diction, and voice. Then I shared with them our play’s script with dialogues and asked them to come prepared with the character they want to be in the play for the auditions. Day-3 we had a super audition session and while some got the characters they wanted to perform for some I choose the roles.

I carry a dholak and a dhaapli to my theatre workshops. A 12-year-old who did not want to act came to me and said “Can I play this” without a word I gave the dholak to him he played it like a drum and we made him the music man of the play. It was a batch of 25 students, we had about 18 characters to be played, so with one drummer, we made the rest of the singing band, which doubled up as crowd for various scenes. The next 4 days were intense practice, but due to family conditions and other such issues every day we would have one or the other character missing.

After all the stumbling blocks, the final day was something that I did not expect. The play was the grand finale of the event where children were showcasing all the activities done during the summer vacations. The children performed with such a lot of ‘Josh’ that there were rounds of applause in between the play too. It was praised by the School Principal, teachers and parents. This experience came to an end with a lot of selfies. 

News Sensitisation – Need of the hour

The Campion School, Colaba, Mumbai, India

We are living in a world full of information and news constantly being bombarded from every corner. These circumstances demand from us better decision making, understanding, and analysis. With this in mind, the Principal of The Campion School, Colaba, Mumbai, invited me to take a news sensitisation session with class 8th and 9th.

As I started discussing the news scenario in the country, the excitement level rose. I encouraged students to share their thoughts and opinion on the issues. While doing so, I picked up two students who would make sure that:

1. Nobody interrupts the person speaking,

2. The person speaking would get only a minute to speak and 

3. No one used language which was disrespectful or abusive. 

This way, we could hear more views, we made sure people were heard, the idea of respecting another person’s viewpoint was sowed, and the debate was healthy. 

As we progressed and we discussed misinformation and disinformation, the students were quick to pinpoint the problem areas in the videos and images shared with them.

They were excited to learn about the tools used to debunk fake news. The best part was that most of them wanted to use these tools so that they could correct their parents and grandparents with proof now. This session with 13 and 14-year-olds equipped them with new skills to become better informed and more open to new ideas.

Shweta Bhandral
Shweta Bhandral

Shweta is a journalist, trainer, and educator with over 20 years of experience in the media and entertainment industry.