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Rhitu Chatterjee grew up in India and trained as a journalist in the USA where she worked for ten years for media outlets including NPR and Public Radio International (PRI). She now lives in New Delhi, and she continues to report for PRI’s programme The World, as well as for Science magazine.
Why did you decide to become a journalist? How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?
I was always fascinated by journalism. I liked reading, writing, learning about the world – I’m a curious person. I put off becoming a journalist for years because I was trained to be a scientist and I didn’t have the courage to switch for a long time. I was working on a PhD in the USA and increasingly getting bored by my life bound to a lab and just the few people in the lab I’d interact with on a daily basis. So I started volunteering at a community radio station and helping out with the news team. I realised I was loving what I was doing. I stopped working on my PhD programme and I did a master’s degree in journalism in the US, and I was able to merge my training and interest in science with my love for storytelling. So for most of my career, I’ve covered science, health, environment, anything where science meets people’s lives. More recently I’ve added gender-related issues and I’m starting to write about the expat experience and culture.
What did your family say about your switch to journalism?
My parents freaked out, like a lot of Indian parents! My dad was an academic, a scientist, as were a lot of people in my family. In the culture I grew up in, you either became a doctor, an engineer or an academic. My mother thought I was abandoning a path that had been laid out for me, for a financially uncertain path that had a lot of running around and hustling. She is still concerned and for years she lamented that everyone else’s children had a PhD and her daughter didn’t. It’s changed, they’re very proud of me now. Once I started working with the programme The World, which is a BBC World Service and Public Radio International co-production, and once the brand name of the BBC was attached, she changed her mind and had a lot of respect for me. Now she loves hearing from me about the people I meet and the stories I cover. My dad was shocked and unnerved, but also supportive, even through the early days. At The World, I produced a weekly podcast and he used to listen and talk to me about the stories, which was adorable.
What do you like most about your job?
I love two things about it – having the privilege of being allowed into people’s lives, not just their day-to-day lives, but being allowed into people’s emotional lives, and being allowed to tell other people about the reality that people are living through. The other thing I love is talking to very smart people who are working on interesting things and being able to explain that to the ordinary person and tell an interesting and engaging story about something complex. I love that as well. For me, the most fun part is when I have my script in hand and I’m ready to track the piece, especially when I’m doing it in a studio. I love, love, love the performance part of it.
What do you dislike most about your job?
Logging tape. Every time I start working on a new radio feature, I’m always wishing for a house elf or an intern to log tape for me.
What’s the most difficult story you’ve ever covered?
The most difficult story I’ve ever covered was about a mysterious disease epidemic in Sri Lanka. In the North Central Province, called the rice bowl, rice farmer families were developing a mysterious kind of chronic kidney disease. Kidney disease is usually caused by hypertension and diabetes but this was different. There weren’t many explanations for the epidemic, just a lot of theories. My challenge was to fly in for ten days and sort out fact from fiction and exaggerated claims, and to be able to describe what people are experiencing and use the little information to get the most scientifically accurate portrayal of what the causes might be. The World had covered a similar epidemic in South America, and the people there were outraged by the epidemic and protesting. My editor at the time kept asking me if people were also outraged in Sri Lanka. And I was visiting these calm idyllic peaceful villages with very hospitable people, and it didn’t look like an epidemic – you usually think of people dying, freaking out, reacting emotionally, yet there was this cover of perfect beauty and calm, and to get people to really talk about what they were experiencing was difficult. Also, a more nuanced story we don’t often hear about Sri Lanka is that it has one of the best public health care systems. They were providing free medication, free dialysis , which is beyond what a developed country might provide. So to be able take all those conflicting and unclear strands and be able to tell a coherent, accurate and nuanced story was very challenging.
Is there a story you’ve done that’s particularly affected you?
There’s a story I did last year, where I profiled a 12-year-old girl in a really remote village in a very culturally conservative part of India. She was quite a firecracker of a character, which was unusual in that setting because a lot of girls in that setting are very shy. So the story ended up being about how this girl was navigating a landscape where gender roles are slowly shifting. It made me reflect a lot on my own upbringing and that of other female friends in India, and how we have all negotiated our own paths between the traditional and the modern, and found our own definitions, or figured out ways that have worked best for us. And she made me understand a lot about gender dynamics in India.
How do you feel your career path is developing as a journalist?
I’m still figuring it out. When I started, I had more of a straight-up science reporting path. Over recent years, I’ve gravitated to understanding various aspects of developing societies, be it gender, environment, economics, health. So I think, I’m merging more of myself and my own background into my formal training.
What sort of equipment do you use?
I use two Marantzes. I have the smaller PMD420 and a PMD660. I have three microphones: shotgun, omni, cardioid. I like as much sound as possible. The shotgun is great for ambient sound, such as birds chirping 500 metres away, or someone walking by. I also use it for a group of people where I’m following conversations but I need to stand away from them to let them chat, but I want to be able to switch direction with my mic to get good sound from whoever I want to record. The cardoid has become my standard sit-down one-on-one interview mic. The omni I use more for ambience in a room or outside on the street – I use it the least. Until a month ago, I used Adobe Audition software for editing. And now I’m using Audacity, free software. It’s funny how your muscle memory is – I keep using the short-cut commands from Audition.
What sort of media do you consume?
I mostly consume radio and online news. TV is the medium I consume the least. I feel I have to keep up with the radio world but it doesn’t always have a lot breaking news, so I add online news to keep up with what’s happening on a daily basis. What I enjoy most is podcasts. Because I’m based in India, where there’s not much radio news, my radio consumption happens on the web or via podcasts. My morning routine is to listen to the previous day’s podcast of The World while I have my breakfast. In that way, I keep up with what’s happening in the world and what the show’s covering. I try to keep up with NPR’s stories. I keep up with Twitter and Facebook, to find out what people are talking about.
What’s your dream as a journalist?
My dream is for my story to have an impact, either directly on someone’s life by changing policy or by better informing people, or spurring a discussion. My series on India’s free school lunch program (funded by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting), got a lot of attention on Weibo, China’s microblogging platform. People there were impressed with the Indian program and wanted to learn from India’s example to expand China’s nascent school feeding program.