Back to back deaths trigger discussion on toxic work culture in journalism

In the last two weeks, Maharashtra has lost at least three journalists to cardiac arrests.

Credit : Indie Journal


In the last two weeks, Maharashtra has lost at least three journalists to cardiac arrests. However, the deaths of these journalists, barely in their 40s and 50s, and several others across the country, has triggered a discussion around the health and well-being of these professionals, chasing news and running the news cycle almost 24x7, most of them without a just remuneration or a conducive work environment.

In a span of just two weeks, three journalists - Satish Nandgaonkar from Hindustan Times (Navi Mumbai), Pankaj Khelkar from India Today (Pune) and Gautam Kamble from Times Now (Nanded) - lost their lives after suffering a cardiac arrest. The Mumbai Press Club had even launched an investigation into the death of Nandgaonkar which has resulted in an accusation that he faced constant harassment at the hands of the resident editor.

The changing game of delivering breaking news in India’s newsrooms, the constant competition between channels and news outlets to bring out a piece of news ‘first’, before anyone else and the everlasting chase of TRP and ever-dwindling job opportunities have left most of the journalists today with no choice but to find themselves in the constant pursuit of a bite, a visual or an interview - a tic tac as you would hear many TV journalists say.

“It is not enough to call it 24x7 anymore. The work is such that we sometimes feared even 24 hours would not be enough,” says Ashwini Satav-Doke, a former TV journalist based in Pune who has worked with news channels like TV9 Marathi, News State in the past.

With news channels showing content almost 24 hours and competing to show news before anyone else, the pressure on the reporters who work at these news channels has increased multifold. While the journalists we see running behind politicians' cars have been at the receiving end of jokes, memes and trolling, Satav-Doke says that the TV channels work in such a way that the reporter on field is left with no other choice.

“Today, news has mostly been restricted to political happenings. It is nothing more than pakda-pakdi (the game of catch). We wait for bites, a lot of times, a list of questions is sent to us by the desk, which we have to ask, and we just have to cover the happening,” she says.



News and ‘breaking’ news

Ritwik Bhalekar, TV journalist who currently works with India Today, Aaj Tak and Mumbai Tak says that this is the result of the changing definition of ‘breaking news’.

“What is ‘breaking news’. Earlier, we only labelled news that was very unique, or something big actually happening, as breaking news. Today, anything and everything is breaking news. Two politicians meeting each other, a politician randomly calling the press to talk, is all considered breaking news and the reporter is expected to reach the spot and cover the news. Any ‘he said, she said’ is termed breaking news today and everyone has to rush to cover it. The cutthroat competition today is, of course, a major reason behind it. But there is no set of rules to define what is ‘breaking news’,” Bhalekar explains.

“A certain TV channel has started a bad practice since the last year and a half. They have their units parked outside the residences of the important political leaders 24x7. All they have to do is show footage and the reporters from all the other channels have no choice but to run there,” he adds.

And moreover, after rushing all day and covering so many events, the journalists say that they do not even feel like they have actually done a news story.

“It is the death of creativity. We cannot do the stories that we actually want to do, even if we try, we cannot give them enough time and space to do justice to them. All we do is worry about what to do if we do not get a piece of news before everyone else. Because even if we show something two minutes after others, we get an email from the management asking why our channel was late and we have to give an explanation,” Satav-Doke says.


“It is the death of creativity. We cannot do the stories that we actually want to do, we cannot give them enough time and space to do them justice."


While this was not always the case, she adds that it is in about the last five years, that this trend has increased. The last five years, especially since the COVID lockdown, has also seen the rise of digital media much faster than earlier. The digital news cycle is considered even faster than TV, which leaves the journalists with even greater challenges.

Kamlesh Sutar, Editor-In-Chief of Lokshahi Marathi says that TV journalism, like many other fields, is indeed a stressful job, and the technology has made it even more necessary for the reporters to be on their toes.

“With technological advancement, the flow of information is now such that the work of field reporters has definitely increased. In a city like Mumbai, people have to travel long distances. The sleep cycles of journalists have changed due to many reasons which also affects their health. Should the work conditions be better? Yes. But the reporters can themselves help make the work environment healthy by developing good relationships and coordination with their co-workers. They should also find time for themselves and engage in something everyday that will act as a stress buster for them,” Sutar says.



Reluctance to fill vacancies

Seema Adhe, a journalist who is solely responsible for the entire coverage on Lokmat Online, the digital wing of one of the most circulated newspapers in the state, says that while running after the events all day long, she often misses out on covering the stories that she actually wants to do.

“I cover all the beats. Although I do not have to go to each and every place physically, arranging for footage, getting bites, sending content takes up all my time. I have to cover each piece of news just on the surface level, I can hardly do any in-depth reporting,” she says.

Many media houses, which predominantly run an electronic or a print media, are seen appointing fewer and fewer personnel in their digital teams. In many places, we see a sole reporter handling news coverage of big cities like Mumbai or Pune.

“Earlier, there were more reporters in the team. But as people leave, the organisation often does not recruit anyone else, leaving all the work load on those who are left behind,” another reporter said on condition of anonymity.

The reluctance to hire more journalists when people resign extends to all platforms, print, electronic or digital.

“Many a time, when a field reporter resigns, the company does not fill the vacant position, and in turn, starts relying on stringers. The stringers are barely paid, they do not even get as many benefits as the full-time reporters do. Whenever more reporters are required for the coverage of a big event, the company just asks the stringers to come to the location of the event, often at their own expense,” Satav-Doke says.

The TV channels have also been asking the reporters to take footage on their own smartphones instead of hiring cameramen.

“I can name many prestigious TV channels who follow this practice in Pune. Not only does this burden the reporter with an added load of video shooting, but it also takes away the job of a cameraman,” she adds.



The situation is not very different at the newspapers either. During the Coronavirus lockdown, we saw many newspapers shutting down their editions and laying off employees in large numbers. While the pandemic is long gone, the newspapers have continued to not fill several vacancies.

“The number of reporters in the teams have reduced significantly. However, the number of pages that we have to fill everyday remains the same. The responsibilities over the people in the editorial teams have multiplied and the workload is increasing every day. Getting a leave or going home on time to give enough time to our families has become a rare occasion now,” a journalist working with the Pune edition of a renowned Marati daily said on condition of anonymity.


Travel and stress

“Travelling is a big part of the job of a journalist, especially when you live in a big city like Mumbai. I cover South Mumbai, where most of the political happenings take place, and I reside around one hour away. I know journalists who live two or more hours away and travel to the office or their field location by the local train everyday. The planning for this begins the night before, when we have already reached home quite late after a full day of work. The situation is even worse in regional TV channels than the national ones,” Bhalekar said.

And while Mumbai has several TV units along with OB vans to rush to locations and cover events, Satav-Doke says that many channels have closed their offices in Pune and other cities and towns and provide no van for transport.

“Whenever anything happens in Western Maharashtra, Marathwada or Konkan, it is the units and journalists from Pune that are sent to cover the news. However, it is the Pune offices that have fewer number of employees, no offices and sometimes no or fewer OB vans. So if one unit goes outdoors, it increases the pressure over the rest of the journalists in Pune, which itself is the centre of so many happenings everyday,” she says.


“Our timings are unpredictable, the rush is terrible. The condition of the cameramen is even worse


She further says that due to the unavailability of OB vans, reporters and cameramen have to travel around the city on their own two-wheelers.

“Our timings are unpredictable, the rush is terrible, why should the reporter be forced to travel on a two-wheeler in hot sun, in pouring rain? The condition of the cameramen is even worse, as they have to travel around with the heavy equipment in their backpacks,” she added.

Just like the stringers who get paid a low remuneration and have to travel on their own without any transport arrangement from the office, Bhalekar says that young journalists working with digital media also face the same predicament.

“These young journalists speed to the locations on their motorcycles in the race to reach first and get the news first. It could also be life-threatening,” Bhalekar adds.


Workload and negligence of health

Does all this affect the health of the journalists?

“Definitely,” says Adhe. “There is no fixed time to eat, sometimes we even forget to eat. In between reaching home late and leaving early the next day for a story, we do not get good sleep,” she adds.

With fewer reporters doing the job of all the others whose positions have not been filled, the reporters do not have any time to pay attention to their own health.

“And in such a case, if a reporter falls sick or has to undergo a treatment, the company often fails to provide them with any sort of health benefit or insurance to cover their expenses. I have known reporters who have lost their lives as they could not get timely treatment for their ailments as they could not afford it,” says the reporters working with the renowned newspaper in Pune.

While a few big companies do provide health insurance to their employees, most do not. And unfortunately, the same journalists who cover the issues faced by all other professionals at their workplaces, often have no access to any forum where their grievances will be heard and resolved.

“At the most we can report to our bureau chiefs and we have meetings with the seniors once in a while. But the meetings are mostly about what we missed and what was not covered. They never ask us how we are doing and what we are facing,” Bhalekar says.

“We cover everyone’s issues, we give voice to everyone’s grievances, but we do not speak about the issues that we face. I always wondered why don’t the stringers demand more, why don’t they say no to work unless they are paid better. But even they are happy with the reputation that they get in their towns and villages and fail to ask for more. And of course, fear of losing job is also a big factor,” Satav-Doke says.



Insecurities in the field

Cost-cutting and layoffs have been plaguing the media industry, especially since the Coronavirus pandemic. Hundreds of journalists lost their jobs during and after the lockdown. But even before that, most media houses had begun employing many on third-party payrolls and short-term contracts.

“Being employed on third-party payroll means you have lower salaries, no added benefits, fewer leaves. But the workload is the same as that of the other employee who is on a better contract,” the newspaper journalist said.

He also added that almost none of the media houses today implement any labour laws. “The Majithia Commission that ensured minimum wages for the working journalists has become outdated now. The government needs to formulate a new commission and come up with a policy to dictate working hours, minimum remuneration and other necessary benefits to be given to the journalists,” the journalist added.

“It is not that the reporters do not want to do their jobs,” Satav-Doke adds, “If we get a lead, we will go and cover that news at any time of the day, we are ready to do that. All we need is the recognition from the management and the assurance that for all the work that we put in today, we will get to rest tomorrow and not be made to rush to the next thing immediately.”