Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Rhythm of Journalism

It’s the afternoon of Saturday, March 30 in the village of Malepu, Sunkhani-3 of Dolakha. A group of six journalists are camped here for a 72-hour “news sourcing and reporting challenge” in an event called Rural Media Gufa, “an experiential newscave”. The objective is to engage journalists directly with the local community.

Some 48 hours have gone by, and journalists are in the field, some knocking doors of residents, others meeting farmers in their fields. As part of the assignment, they must talk to sources in person; all forms of new media, cellphones or the internet, are banned.

The weather is warm but gruff. The sounds of a strong wind rustles through the neighboring forest, and howls through the galvanized steel roof of the school building, and the bamboo fence panels of the makeshift “newscave” nearby. The sturdy winds have fully subdued the birds’ tweets, or the otherwise resounding melodies of the vigorous waters of Tamakoshi only a few hundred meters down the ridge. 

Photo by Arjun Dahal

Barely 24 hours remain for the “cavedwellers” to report and write their 800-word story. A couple of them are writing drafts, the rest are back in the field to follow-up and for verification. The story demands at least five human sources, including a regular, a women, a member of the marginalized community, an underage (with parental consent), and a local expert. In addition, they must also cite a relevant local public document. They must exhibit a variation of attribution styles, including direct, phrasal quotes, and paraphrasing, as well as three statistics in the story.

The story guideline is thorough, and it specifies the nature of headline, options on intro/lead, nut graph, main body, the ending, and is rigid on copy format, and the referencing of sources at the end. The form is rhythmic, alternating between elements that are a given in the journalistic craft: beginning—facts—quotes—facts—quotes—facts—quotes…—ending.


As the wind weakens, a group of villagers arrives in the cave. They are here to appeal to the gufa journalists to write on Dhamire-Simdobhan irrigation canal. The project, they report, started in 2067 BS with meager support from the VDC office. Voluntary contribution of labor by 2,000 locals for three months helped to dig 500 meters of the canal. However, further work on the planned 1,400-meter stretch appears impossible now as they face the barrier of a huge boulder (about 500 meters) on the way.

Mahendra Bahadur Khadka, 65, treasurer of the canal construction committee, says actual cost to cut through the massive rock formation could be around Rs 2 million; but with villagers working themselves they need only about Rs 500,000. “We will donate in voluntary work, and doing so will help sustain our love for the canal.”

Dambar Bahadur Shrestha, 46, observes that the biggest problem facing the villagers is lack of irrigation. At 700 meters above sea level and with a population of 500, Malepu, unlike other villages in the region, reflects diversity, comprising people of varied ethnic backgrounds, including janajatis such as Maji, Thami and Badi. The predominantly agricultural village has uninterrupted electricity, some telephonic connectivity, is linked by two dirt roads, but has no irrigation facilities.

Never before in my career have I had a group of people come to me with such a unique journalistic request. As one of the organizers of the gufa and as a member of the research committee monitoring its proceedings, I find myself in a fix. Two days ago, villagers had gathered to brainstorm story ideas for the journalists. They had suggested around a dozen ideas, and the irrigation issue had been mentioned only peripherally.

Of the ideas suggested by the community, six were selected for reporting by lot: Majhi children’s education (Rajneesh Bhandari,, the Badi of the East (Keshav Koirala, The Himalayan Times), hydropower independence (Arun Rai, Republica), public opinion on local elections (Rubina Shreshtha, Kantipur FM), an exemplary farmer (Arjun Dahal, Radio Sailung, Dolakha), and local entrepreneurship (Bimala Thapa, Hamro Radio, Dolakha).


Gufa journalists walk to stories, but here was a story that walked to us. With barely a day remaining, there isn’t enough time for a fair coverage of the canal that the villagers believe could irrigate 240 ropanis of land.

We don’t have big leaders who could fight for our cause, says one farmer. Our leaders are in deep slumber, adds another, and if you shout out our problems, they could be woken up. These leaders may slap us knowing that we took this issue to the media, jokes another. Not all have inflated expectations from the journalists. For example, Jagat Bahadur Khadka, 48, remarks: “Of course journalists cannot do much, other than to help disseminate our news. Others could learn how the people of Malepu are trying hard on their own.”

As I listen to them, I begin to see the contours of a story out of all the assigned stories. What is your image of the people called journalists? I ask. Their responses are benign: Journalists offer advice to people who are exploited, they are eyes of the country for the people, they are the ones who do benevolent works and push for reforms for everyone’s future, they travel around the country and shout out the realities, they pour out the events that happen in villages, they clarify issues that the enemies keep hidden, etc.

Have you ever met a journalist? I ask. None except one of the seven admits meeting a journalist before. “I am 80 and this is the first time I am meeting a journalist. I am telling you the truth,” says Chandra Bahadur Khadka.

The visitors agree media in general covered other places fairly well, but not theirs. They feel the media could focus more on seeds, irrigation, modern equipment, pesticides, etc, and even though fertilizers are expensive, the media should be able to help in their timely distribution.

Malepu is a microcosm of the country. There is political disillusionment, social disintegration caused by generational differences, but residents have collaborated to own up local development.


The rhythm of journalism today is increasingly characterized by ever more shrinking deadlines, arm-chair tele-reporting, with lip devotion to human conditions on the ground. One of the critical issues is the repetition of the already hackneyed sources—the same uninspiring politicians, the same banal experts. As the human touch diminishes, the potential of manipulation by sources increases, and so does the challenge to verification of information.

The Rural Gufa offered a break from the routinized rhythm, from the taken-for-granted sourcing and reporting habits. There were real challenges in verification; inconsistencies in assertions by sources were recurrent especially in numbers, figures, and dates. The same person would be of so many ages! Opinions too had to be cross-verified, with some journalists asking if a particular source was serious or simply sarcastic, or joking about an issue. There was also the difficulty in finding proper documents. Invariably, it was the local school or the village cooperative that offered the only hope for such documents, unfortunately not relevant to every assigned story. Other obstacles included developing rapport with sources, and adapting to the local idiomatic culture, etc.

The urban-based, tech-savvy journalists displayed stoicism in completely abstaining from mobile phones and social media; eating the same food the locals ate and walking distances. A participant had fever and cold, but would not rest. Some faced the most somber experience of their professional career. For example, Rajneesh Bhandari was shadowing the 13-year-old Rajan Majhi on Tamakoshi river laying his fishing net on the blue waters. Just before the sunset, the boy saw something approaching his net: It was his father’s dead body. The elder Majhi, a seasoned fisherman, had drowned. Himself a witness to the incident, Bhandari could neither ask the boy for a quote nor leave the scene abruptly.

Another day, after several hours of walk, and sweats, he earned the one quote he desperately needed to end his story: “I am feeling sad,” the grieving teenager told him 

Published in Republica, April 10, 2013.


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