Sonal Matharu is a journalist, currently working with the NDTV 27X7 for the show Truth vs Hype. In this interview she has talked about educational journey, internships and experiences in the field. You can follow her on twitter at @sonalmatharu
Introduce yourself to our readers, who are mostly students across India. Please tell us about your family back ground.
I started reporting in 2009, soon after I finished my Post-Graduation in Print Journalism from Asian College of Journalism, Chennai. I started when news did not happen over ‘Facebook’ and ‘Twitter’ (though the social mediums existed at that time, but they weren’t the norm), but where each day we had to get stories from the ground.
My family is from Delhi. My father runs his own business and my mother is a homemaker. I have a younger sister who is an Economist. I am the only journalist in my entire extended family. Obviously, when I decided to pick this profession (a decision I took quite early in life) my parents were anxious, but they encouraged and supported me completely, at all levels.
Where did you go for your school education? What were your aspirations then? What motivated you to pursue career in Mass Com?
I completed my schooling from Delhi. It was soon after I finished my 10th board exams that I decided I want to become a journalist. I was a commerce student but looking into the future as a chartered accountant or working in the corporate sector, I could not picture myself spending my life in one office doing the same work day in and day out.
I wanted to travel and do meaningful work that contributes to the society at large in some way. I felt being a reporter would give me a chance to visit places which I would never go otherwise. That’s why, journalism.
Please tell us you experiences at the college and internships done by you during that period?
College – undergraduate degree – was hugely disappointing. I enrolled in Journalism Hons. at Delhi University and it didn’t take me long to grasp that my three years will go completely waste if I sit in a classroom and learn ‘History of Journalism’ amongst other obsolete courses.
The real experience came from my internships. In my first year I interned at The Asian Age on their Features desk. I could understand the work environment, how offices function and what each ‘beat’ demands. I was largely covering fashion and lifestyle related stories. This was my first experience at writing and I learnt a lot. But my interest was mainstream politics and social issues, so I moved on. I also interned at a photo stock agency where I learn about photo shoots, picture captioning etc.
What made you pursue masters in Mass Com? In what ways it helped your career?
As DU does not offer much in terms of Journalism degree. So I felt the need to enroll for a post-graduate degree. My post-graduation was in Chennai, which was a very enriching experience. I co-students were from different parts of the Asian sub-continent and I learnt a lot from them. The course at ACJ itself is very rigorous. It gives you an exposure to new readings and lets you experiment with your writing skills. I have to admit, whatever I learnt about understanding of various social, political and international issues, came from my time spent in the ACJ. The college also gave me vast space and guided me in improving my writing and editing skills. I was an avid reader of fiction as well as of non-fiction books. I also used to read a lot of long-form narrative stories, a style of writing which I later pursued in my career.
How you landed at the Asian College of journalism?
When I enrolled at the ACJ, the college had very limited seats, so the competition was tougher. I went through three rounds of written tests which test your English, general knowledge and editing skills. Once I cleared that (surprisingly!) I went through a rigorous viva which went on for more than 40 minutes, by the whole faculty. I finally got through! (Have to admit, I prepared religiously for post-grad)
You started your career from Governance Now magazine? Please describe to us your role and experiences there. How did you get the job there?
Actually, I started working at the news agency ANI first. But I was on the desk there and was there only for a month before I was offered reporting job (which I really wanted).
When I joined Governance Now, the magazine had not been launched. I was told by a friend that a new magazine is coming up and the Editors are looking for reporters. I applied, met the Editors for an interview and got the job.
I started reporting on the Health beat. Health was also an elective I had taken up in ACJ, so I was keen on reporting on this beat.
My reporting, however, was not restricted to a particular beat. My editors gave me full opportunity to contribute to stories from different spheres and gave me space also to write long policy stories. An opportunity, I used to the best of my abilities.
I proposed a lot of travel stories and they were sanctioned. I travelled to Uttarakhand, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and several other states for reporting.
It was also during my job at Governance Now that I applied for a UK-based Panos Fellowship to work on a series of tobacco stories and I won it. My Editors fully supported this and gave me the space to write stories which the fellowship demanded.
You also reported on health issues for Down To Earth magazine. Your experiences there.
While I was looking more on the administrative side of health stories at Governance Now; at Down To Earth, I looked at health stories from the disease perspective. It helped me understand the beat better and I could get into more technicalities, which refined the questions I used to ask the concerned officials. I wrote several cover stories for the magazine and travelled extensively.
After masters in journalism, what motivated you to go for Masters in Developmental Studies? How it helped you in your career?
I went for Masters to develop more theoretical understanding of issues that I had been reporting on for more than three years. Health is not only about a disease and its cure, but it has undertones of gender, poverty amongst several other issues. To understand these better, I went for further studies.
Second reason, I wanted to get more into research-based journalism, for which I needed to understand the research methodologies and tools.
How you became Senior Research Associate, Supreme Court Commissioners Office? Your role and experiences there?
I wanted to do research-based work before taking up journalism again, that’s why I joined the Commissioners Office which was working on the Right to Food case.
As a team, we did a study on the only maternity entitlements scheme that is operational in India. For this I travelled to Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh and also wrote few chapters in the report. We also wrote papers based on our report in EPW.
After I completed this, I worked with social activist Harsh Mander on advocacy work for the Right to Food in Asia and West Africa. For this, I travelled to Bangladesh and Mali. This gave me an international exposure and I could interact with people working in several countries in Asia and Africa, facing issues of hunger, starvation and poverty, similar to what we see in India.
What made you come back to work with governance now?
I wanted to start reporting again and that’s why I joined Governance Now again as a special correspondent. I mostly wrote long-form narrative stories. My story on Tuberculosis from a village in Dhanbad, Jharkhand, won an award for best TB reporting in 2016.
How much grades matter in securing a job? Tell us about other activities which play a major role in securing a job.
Grades – Zero.
Other skills that can get you a job – hard work, sincerity, ability to accept that you know little but are willing to learn. Once you have the job, one must develop a good reading habit which keeps you up to date about your beat. Also, one must have an understanding of issues before reporting on them.
How would you describe your present job at NDTV? Your role and experiences there?
I am working as a correspondent and a researcher for a research-based investigative show called Truth vs Hype for which the reporting and research is very rigorous. My work requires extensive travel and it is almost like a no break shift. In the course of one year that I have been here, I have reported from conflict areas like Jammu and Kashmir and Chhattisgarh, besides reporting on issues such as spread of ISIS in India and militancy in Kashmir.
Our team did extensive reporting of the 2017 assembly elections from Uttar Pradesh and Goa and I have had the opportunity to meet top politicians and Chief Ministers of several states.
Since our reporting here is based on facts, we do extensive fact digging which has helped me understand data and numbers better. Our show Truth vs Hype has won several awards in the last year.
What role ethics play in today’s journalism? If any.
No matter where the markets lean, if you do not stick to your ethics in reporting, you will not be a respected journalist.
What would be your parting message to students who want to be at your place?
Be clear what your ambition in life is. Then be persistent at achieving it with full sincerity.
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