No full-stops (periods) in good journalism, only commas…

A S Panneerselvan

In any meeting, we can count on Indian journalist A S Panneerselvan to liven up the discussion. He didn’t let us down when a two dozen South Asians came together last weekend in New Delhi at a Symposium on Science, Environment and Media: Discussing Experiences in South Asia.

“There are no full-stops in good journalism, only commas,” he declared. He was referring to two of the most commonly used punctuation marks in modern writing.

This metaphor neatly sums up the nature of journalism, whose coverage of public affairs and society is often on-going, unfinished and open-ended. This prompted Phil Graham, the former publisher of the Washington Post, to describe journalism as the “first rough draft of history”. The reason is that journalists, in the performance of their duty often record important events, producing hurried written reports (in text, sound or pictures) often generated on short deadlines.

Panneer, who likes to call himself ‘a failed physicist and a failed journalist’, added that the intrinsic value of a journalist as one who tries to bring back the idea of commons — resources that are collectively owned, which can range from physical goods to artistic or creative products.

Panneer was speaking to the journalists, broadcasters, academics and activists brought together by Panos South Asia, IIT Delhi, and Centre for Studies in Science Policy, Jawaharlal Nehru University, for the two-day symposium on 15 – 16 November 2009.

I always welcome occasions when his and my paths cross as we move in overlapping South Asian circles. Listening to him this time around, I recalled his clear, emphatic words on a previous occasion, at an Asian regional brainstorming on ‘Communicating Disasters: Building on the tsunami experience and responding to future challenges’ that I convened in December 2006 in Bangkok, Thailand.

He said the media is plural term, not a singular one. This implies that the media are not a monolith. Some are excellent; many are mediocre; some are downright bad. Some in the media are also indifferent to some issues but may be outstanding in addressing other issues.

He added that media is also very much a contested and contentious space where arguments rage on. Not everything is moderate, balanced or ‘evidence-based’.

Panneer’s day job is as the executive director of Panos South Asia. He was formerly the managing editor of Sun TV and bureau chief for Outlook magazine in India. Having been with the mainstream media for 20 years, he is now moving in that interesting overlap between media and development sectors. This gives him both insight and perspective.

Contributing a chapter to Communicating Disasters: An Asia Pacific Resource Book in 2007, Panneer wrote: “Development agencies rarely bring journalists into their universe at a stage which can be called ‘work-in-progress’. They usually just come to the media with a finished product. There is hardly any joint exploration. When presented with a finished product, there is just one alternative for a reporter — that is, to review the product that is already done.

“Imagine a scenario where journalists are brought into the process right from the word go. There would have been a series of stories, and when the final report of the development agencies is realised, that may well serve as the winding-up story tracking the entire trajectory.

“A journalist is expected to report and not just reproduce. Development agencies like their versions to be reproduced to a large extent. This becomes an assault on the journalists’ work-pride. He or she would like to do a field report, taking a cue or two from the work of the development agency. But, to merely reproduce a report is seen only as providing a free plug, an unpaid advertisement, and doing a stenographer’s job.”

Read his full chapter online: Engaging the Media: A Rough Guide by A S Panneerselvan

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