When covering foreign affairs (or even religion news), journalists often end up needing to mention the names of documents, institutions or groups -- in the original language. Readers get used to seeing this. For example, the Los Angeles Times recently ran an essay that referred to Pope Benedict XVI's "just-released encyclical, 'Caritas in Veritate' (Love in Truth)." The logic is that some readers might know the meaning of that Latin phrase, but not many.
Over time, journalists assume that the meaning of certain foreign language phrases sink in at street level. It's rare, for example, to see a translation these days of the 1968 papal encyclical, "Humanae Vitae (Of Human Life)."
I thought about this principle the other day while reading mainstream coverage of the trial of Ajmal Kasab, 21, the only surviving gunman from the Mumbai massacre. Kasab recently shocked Indian authorities by offering a full and very detailed confession about the crime and, it appears, his motives. Here is a chunk of the best story that I could find about that, by reporters Vikas Bajaj and Lydia Polgreen of the New York Times:
"I don't think I am innocent," he said, speaking in subdued Hindi. "My request is that we end the trial and be sentenced."
For the better part of a day he held the courtroom spellbound: he portrayed himself as a poor Pakistani who joined the militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba only for money. But in the end, the mission was martyrdom, inflicting the greatest amount of death and chaos along the way. He told the court how he and his partner had assembled a bomb in a public bathroom at a train station, then planted another bomb in a taxi.
What sets the Times story apart from other mainstream coverage is that it does not appear that the editors set out to scrub all religious language and information from the long and vivid testimony of the gunman.
Compare this Times report, for example, with this stunningly faith-free story from the Los Angeles Times. This report provides quite a bit of information about what the gunmen did, while saying absolutely nothing about what Kasab -- as well as evidence from hours of taped telephone calls -- revealed about their motivations.
This really hits home for me these days. While I was in India a few weeks ago, I heard Indian journalists make a powerful case for their own self-censorship, when it comes to reporting gritty details about the role that religion plays in their complex culture. The bottom line: Talking about religion can start riots and people may die. You can see the effects of this unstated rule in coverage of Kasab's testimony, such as this Times of India story.
While I struggle to understand the journalistic realities of India, I have no idea why religion seems to be out of bounds in Los Angeles and other major U.S. media hubs, when covering this kind of story. It's hard to carve the religious element out of the events in Mumbai.
Here is another strong passage from the New York Times report:
It is clear from the electronic record that the attackers seemed unworldly tools of their handlers. ... A handler instructed a gunman, "For your mission to end successfully you must be killed."
In the last recorded call just as the siege was about to end with an attack by Indian soldiers, a handler told one of the attackers at the Jewish community center: "Brother, you have to fight. This is a matter of the prestige of Islam."
As one of the fighters lay bleeding, he told his handler: "I am shot, pray for me." And then: "Pray that God will accept my martyrdom."
I do, however, have one final question about these reports, in general. Simply stated: What does Lashkar-e-Taiba mean? Can journalists assume that readers know the meaning of this phrase?
I realize that there is some question about the proper translation of this term. Is it "Army of the good" or "Army of the pure"? Still, it would be harder to ignore the religious element of this ongoing story, and the tensions between India and Pakistan about it, if journalists defined this phrase and then explained it. This would help readers to understand a complex story, which is a public service that journalism is supposed to provide.
Honest. You can look it up.