“We Represent People, Not Political Positions”

Indian journalist Chaitanya Marpakwar is visiting Germany as a media ambassador, discussing issues such as how to take action against fake news and reconnect journalism with its readers.

Eva Wolfangel | August 2018
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Media ambassador Chaitanya Marpakwar considers himself a changemaker and believes in the power of local journalism.

Chaitanya Marpakwar had just arrived in Germany when his home country caught up with him again. For his media ambassador grant program, the young Indian journalist had originally planned to focus on fake news in Germany and how it is handled by the general public and the country’s media. But then two men were brutally killed in Assam, “simply because of a false rumor on WhatsApp.” According to WhatsApp, the two men were kidnappers. Their black van was described in detail, and the rumor spread like wildfire. When they eventually arrived in a village, the outraged villagers didn’t hesitate and killed them. “WhatsApp is really very dangerous,” says Chaitanya. India is one of the world’s biggest markets for social media, and especially in rural areas the messaging service tends to be people’s first point of contact with the internet, well ahead of Facebook and Twitter—“but they don’t know how to verify information.” People naively believe any rumor, as to them it’s “the news.”

Uncovering and challenging issues

Eventually, Chaitanya wrote an article about the incident in Assam and the role of WhatsApp for Stuttgarter Zeitung, his German host publication. While his fellow grant holders are primarily interested in Germany’s major magazines, he decided to work for a local newspaper—the one in Mumbai’s twin city. “I believe in the power of local journalism,” the 29-year-old reporter from the Mumbai Mirror explains, “because that’s where you can make the biggest difference.” This view surprises many people he meets in Germany. “Here, there is too much coverage of what is,” to the detriment of uncovering issues, he says.

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Chaitanya Marpakwar is critical of German journalism and news coverage: “Our approach is much more confrontational than that of the German media.”

Less observation, more action

“Journalism is not about listening but about asking questions,” he believes, expressing criticism of the German practice to repeat policymakers’ statements or report from press conferences. “Our approach is much more confrontational than that of the German media,” Chaitanya says. At home, he focuses on reporting on exactly the things politicians try to hide. “When an accident happens and a politician appears at the scene, I won’t let him go until he has answered my questions.” Is German journalism too nice? He sees a reason for that in the different histories of the two countries: To this day, India’s media landscape is characterized by the country’s struggle for freedom that began in the 1920s and only ended with the country’s independence in 1947. “We have a long tradition of challenging authorities.”

This approach also defines Chaitanya’s everyday work life, namely his focus on uncovering breaking news. “We don’t need journalists to sugarcoat things, but to break news. We don’t wait for the invite to a press conference; we proactively search for topics worth reporting.” His day routinely starts with an analysis of social media and an exchange with colleagues at his and other newspapers in different WhatsApp groups to scan what has happened and what may happen that day.

We don’t need journalists to sugarcoat things, but to break news. We don’t wait for the invite to a press conference; we proactively search for topics worth reporting.

Chaitanya works the local policy desk, which includes coverage of two nationalist Hindu parties in his hometown as well as local building matters. Once he has an overview, he lets his paper’s management know what story he is planning to write, again via a WhatsApp group. “And they respond immediately.” He only joins the lunchtime editorial meeting if there is no current topic to research. The constant meetings in German newsrooms are another thing that surprises him. In his job, joining the editorial meeting is merely a stopgap. “If I miss out on a story in India, I have to justify myself,” he explains. There are no stories to discover in editorial meetings, “you have to go out and talk to people.” He considers himself less of a reporter and more of a changemaker.

But shouldn’t journalists keep a professional distance from the story? This question is the topic of heated discussions in the German media; in India, on the other hand, it seems to have been resolved a long time ago. “Of course we represent people, not political positions,” Chaitanya answers when asked for his take on the issue, “there is plenty that’s clearly right.” He has, for instance, uncovered corruption in the construction sector and launched a successful campaign for building public restrooms in the large shantytowns. “That used to be forbidden, based on the argument that it would legalize the slums.” But when the young reporter heard that a shantytown resident had lost her legs because people, in lieu of other options, use train tracks as toilets, he searched for the woman until he found her and wrote a story about her tragic fate. Together with his newsroom, he followed up on it with the campaign for restrooms in slums. “It took me an entire year,” he says, sounding satisfied, “but now they are building restrooms in the slums.” A long-overdue right, he believes, for the six million people residing in Mumbai’s shantytowns.

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During his stay in Stuttgart, Chaitanya Marpakwar talks about how his newsroom handles fake news. One of his top priorities: to actively engage readers.

Community and debate with readers at eye level

The other topic Indian journalism—and Chaitanya in particular—focuses on is fake news. In India, he is observing a development not unlike the one in the U.S.: “Popular politicians call coverage they dislike fake news.” At the same time, many people believe hoaxes they see on social media. To fight this trend, Chaitanya and his colleagues are trying to strengthen traditional journalism and, most importantly, engage with readers. Audience engagement—still almost unheard of in the German media landscape—is par for the course in India. For instance, authors’ Twitter accounts are always listed under their articles, readers discuss with journalists on social media platforms, and the Mumbai Mirror also offers its readership a sense of belonging to their social environment: The Mumbai Readers Tribe organizes city tours and excursions and educates people on issues. “And you are part of a community.”

Chaitanya would like to see German media professionals rethink their approach: “The new journalism will have to be part of the game,” he says, advocating less observation and more action. “I don’t consider myself an observer but a changemaker.” After his research in Germany, he considers fake news a less relevant topic in the country: “There’s no Fox News here, and people trust the traditional media. That’s worth a lot!” Nevertheless, he points out, the media crisis is a global issue.

The new journalism will have to be part of the game. I don’t consider myself an observer but a changemaker.

So, will he need to find a new topic for his research in Germany now? Chaitanya shrugs, explaining that ways to enable readers to evaluate sources critically and put them into context is a relevant topic everywhere. But another German particularity has already caught his attention: “Germany is considered the European champion in plastics recycling.” In light of a very recent plastic ban in Mumbai, he has looked into Germany’s approach more closely. “I want to find out how you fight plastic waste.” In doing so, he learned of something odd: bottle collectors. He objects to how the German public treats these people: “They collect your plastic waste, keep streets clean—and still, they are accosted and abused.” To delve deeper into the topic, he is planning to spend a few days collecting bottles himself and write a feature about his experiences for the Mumbai Mirror. As he sees it, bottle collectors should be treated as heroes. He may be in for another surprise.