India's Priyanka Dubey shares key tips to telling sensitive stories

by Ashley Nguyen
Oct 30, 2018 in Specialized Topics
Priyanka Dubey

Indian journalist Priyanka Dubey is hard at work on a book that examines rape in India. Five years into her career as an investigative journalist, she’s interviewed countless women about their brutal encounters with rapists.

But as she researched the topic to prepare for stories, the Knight International Journalism Award recipient discovered there was little documentation about rape in India. People made a great deal of noise after the December 2012 gang rape case, Dubey said, but there was no “authentic nonfiction book” examining the issue.

Much of the book’s content will be pulled from Dubey’s past reporting as a freelance journalist, and while working for Tehelka Hindi, an Indian magazine, and the Hindustan Times. However, Dubey continues to research why rape in India is so persistent and what happens to victims and survivors after they’ve been sexually abused.

Dubey is no stranger to telling sensitive stories. The 28-year-old Bhopal native frequently writes about gender issues and child trafficking. From speaking with missing children forced into farm labor to policewomen facing cruel treatment from fellow officers, Dubey has mastered the art of sincerity as an interviewer.

Dubey spoke to IJNet about her experiences as an investigative journalist, and she stressed these tips for reporters:

Be genuine

Every story Dubey reports is a “humble attempt,” she explained. No reporter should ever enter a person’s home expecting a good story if getting an interview is their only mission.

While interviewing rape survivors, Dubey connects with local activists who may know the person. She takes time to learn about his or her history first. Then, she’ll sit with the individual until they’re ready to speak. Maybe the first day, everyone is silent. Dubey always returns.

“For human interest stories on sensitive topics like rape, the key is silence,” Dubey said. “You have to first share their grief and be with them. Because this work is going to help ensure they get justice, I always ask a one-line lead-in question like, ‘What would you like to say,’ or ‘What would you like to happen?’ If she opens up to you, you will gain her trust.”

Dubey has encountered subjects who don’t want to speak, but she is persistent in a quiet, careful way. Neetu Kumar, a woman constable who was gangraped while on the way to her sister’s funeral, at first refused to speak with Dubey.

Kumar was tired of the verbal harassment she received from her department, the Latehar Police Station, when she spoke with the media about her case.

After Kumar refused, Dubey recalls making a final plea before leaving, “If you would speak to me, it would be a big help. It would help bring this out and show people there’s a message.”

Kumar relented, and her story added to Dubey’s three-part series on what it’s like to be a policewoman in India. Fellow reporters also covered the issue, and a few months after Dubey’s series was published, the Delhi government announced they would increase the percentage of women within the police force.

Dubey remembers telling Kumar, “Your happiness and your sanity is more important to me than this interview.”

“I think that touched her,” Dubey said. “You just have to be honest. In most cases, it works.”

Do your homework

Dubey is based in Delhi, but so far, many of her reports take place all over the northern regions of India. Though she was born in Bhopal and reported throughout the Madhya Pradesh state, India is so large it would be impossible to know every village or city well.

Before going into the field, Dubey does extensive research, and she encourages other reporters to do their homework.

Dubey recommends reading local newspapers in the regional dialect, staying in touch with stringers in the area, talking to experts and developing lots of plans for when you do actually hit the streets. For two days of reporting, Dubey says she might do around 20 days of homework.

While reporting about children abducted from Delhi to work in the sugar-producing region of Uttar Pradesh, Dubey’s homework consisted of creating a questionnaire so she could pose as an agricultural researcher. She approached farmers, asked simple research questions and became friendly with the subjects. They would usually offer a refreshment, and Dubey waited to see who would bring the water.

“I would see that the boy who would be getting water for me was not a resident of there,” she recalled. “The color of his skin, his contours, the way he’s talking — you immediately know he’s not from there.”

Dubey used her “researcher” camera to capture images of the kids, and the pictures appeared in her report, which was published in Tehelka.

Going undercover sounds exciting, and Dubey’s stint as a researcher makes a good story, but it wouldn’t have been possible if she hadn’t tirelessly planned for the trip.

Build personal and professional networks

Over the past five years as a journalist, Dubey has built a good network of professional sources in different districts across North India. They help Dubey keep her ear to the ground wherever she reports. These sources help her procure reliable drivers if she’s in the field. This is essential, especially when Dubey reports in remote villages where connectivity is limited or non-existent.

While a professional community is crucial to Dubey’s workflow, she relies heavily on her human resource network, which she calls the “biggest capital of any reporter.”

“The organizations may change, everything may die or fall, but the family of local sources and local reporters that you develop is your real support,” Dubey said. “A professional network has its limitations. No one is going to put their lives on the line for you for a few bucks or a few thousand rupees. But [thanks to] my personal network, everyone knows I am not to be touched and there are consequences for it.”

Care for yourself

Dubey is now a freelance journalist. She left Tehelka to dedicate time to important stories with long shelf lives. The topics she covers are often dark, and Dubey admits this has taken a toll on her mental and physical health. The journalist feels more anxious, she said.

"I still feel good that I haven’t become hard," Dubey said. "I still sometimes cry while writing my copy like I used to do when I first wrote my stories ... I realized about a year ago that I’ve lost the capacity to feel normal and happy."

To take care of herself, she tries to take breaks inbetween stories and spend time with people. Regardless, she is committed to her work. She's already thinking of five years down the line: "Someday, I plan to start a longform platform in Hindi and English languages. We need to start a movement to save longform journalism."

Main image by Ashley Nguyen