2009 Daniel Pearl Intern: Ketaki Gokhale

Ketaki Gokhale

A Stanford graduate student has been chosen as the 2009 Daniel Pearl Memorial Journalism Intern. Ketaki Gokhale is working toward a master’s degree in Communication, specializing in journalism, which she plans to finish in June 2009. She will work in a foreign bureau of the Wall Street Journal this summer.

In an essay written as part of the application process, Gokhale described reporting on the plight of Punjab farm workers who suffered because the Indian American farmers who employed them were either ignorant of pesticide safety regulations or ignored them. She continued, “In his life and work, Daniel Pearl was an exemplar of this impulse. Whether reporting from war-torn Kosovo or a child beauty pageant in the American South, Pearl would focus on the most ordinary of people, telling their stories in a way that lent them dignity and created understanding between disparate people.

Gokhale is from Marin County, and has worked at India-West newspaper in San Leandro, California, and New America Media, consortium of ethnic media based in San Francisco. She is a graduate of Brown University.

A committee of Communication Department faculty members evaluated applicants for the internship. The final decision was made by the Wall Street Journal. Pearl, a 1985 graduate of Stanford’s Department of Communication, was kidnapped in Karachi on January 23, 2002, while working on a story retracing the steps of “shoe bomber” Richard Reid. A month later, on Feb. 21, his captors released a videotape of his slaying. He was 38.

Ordinary People, Extraordinary Risks

By Ketaki Gokhale

In the heart of California’s agricultural corridor there is a small town called Yuba City. It happens to have the largest concentration of Indian Americans in the nation. Most of them are established peach, prune and almond growers, renowned in the local Indian community for their wealth and influence. Their political involvements in India and financial fortunes in farming always make headlines in local ethnic papers.

But I was determined to tell another story—the story of scrappy new immigrants from the Indian state of Punjab toiling in the peach orchards, their health suffering at the hands of Indian American farmers who were ignorant of California pesticide safety regulations or were willfully flouting them.

I spent three months driving between the Bay Area office of my little newspaper and Yuba City, interviewing farm workers and documenting an unrelenting tale of exploitation and perseverance. For some reason, I knew it was an important story that had to be told to the well-heeled Indian community of the Bay Area and Los Angeles. It had little relation to their lives, but I knew it would affect their lives.

In his life and work, Daniel Pearl was an exemplar of this impulse. Whether reporting from war-torn Kosovo or a child beauty pageant in the American South, Pearl would focus on the most ordinary of people, telling their stories in a way that lent them dignity and created understanding between disparate people. For me, the most vivid examples are seen in Pearl’s work as South Asia bureau chief, and particularly in his coverage of the 2001 Gujarat earthquake. He talks to hotel managers, firefighters and gurus, painting a brief but potent picture of the devastation. What was astonishing to me was that he came to the subcontinent as a stranger, and used that to his advantage. He spoke with people at the margins of society—ironically, people who were easy for him to access—to tell stories of national and global importance.

In my work, I strive to do the same. As a reporter at India-West, I would often have to write about immigration issues. It would have been easy to call bureaucratic figures and spokespeople and string together a story based on their sound bites, but I chose instead to interview ordinary people affected by changes in green card or H-1B visa policies. The stories, I found, were more compelling and—strangely enough—comprehensible as a result. At New America Media, I wrote two stories on the economic downturn, but I told them through the eyes of unemployed indigent day laborers who were sustaining themselves at soup kitchens due to the decline in construction work, and also through the eyes of farm workers, hard up for work in the Central Valley because of a water shortage.

Telling the stories of ordinary people is important, I found, because it has the potential to spur change. My story on the farm workers in Yuba City made a difference in its own quiet way. Officials at the state Agricultural Labor Relations Board circulated it among themselves for a few weeks, and eventually decided to launch an educational outreach effort in the Yuba City Punjabi community, the first since 1990. This year, the story was recognized by the East Bay Press Club with a prize for cultural affairs reporting. It was the only story from the ethnic press to make the list of finalists.

There is no question, however, that telling tales about ordinary people can carry with it extraordinary risks. Daniel Pearl’s life was a testament to the risks and rewards of his brand of journalism. In my work, I hope to pay tribute to Pearl’s journalistic ideals, and I would be honored to do that work at The Wall Street Journal.