Caste in India reporting: Did a politician play Reuters for a fool?

Did a politician play Reuters for a fool last week, using claims of religious bigotry toward India's untouchables (Dalits) to bolster his political fortunes?

Comparing stories released the same day by Reuters and The Hindu on reports that Hindu priests cleansed a temple defiled by a visit from a lower caste politician suggest Reuters may have been too quick to see religious motivations at work in what was a political story.

Newspapers often suffer from a journalistic schizophrenia when reporting on religion. Either they ignore the faith element in a story entirely, or they are too deferential to religion and religious leaders, taking at face value their truth claims. This article from Reuters exhibits the second tendency -- when religion is offered as the motivation for an action, it stops asking questions.

The Reuters story entitled “Indian temple 'purified' after low-caste chief minister visits” opens with the statement:

The government in India's northern state of Bihar has ordered an investigation after reports that a Hindu temple was cleaned and its idols washed after a visit by the state's chief minister, who belongs to a lower caste community. Chief Minister Jitan Ram Manjhi, a member of the Musahar community, said he had been told the shrine in Bihar's Madhubani district was "purified" after he visited it last month.

The story then quotes Manjhi as saying:

"I have asked the local divisional commissioner and inspector general of police to probe the case and bring out the truth," Manjhi, who is from the Janata Dal United (JDU) party, told journalists on Monday. He said he had ordered the investigation because it was important to highlight caste biases in Indian society, adding that if the reports were true, those responsible would be punished according to the law.

It might well be argued that the lede’s claim the “government” has ordered an investigation is a bit of a tautology, when the government is led by Jitan Ram Manji, the person complaining of religious discrimination and the head of the government that will investigate the discrimination.

The Reuters story offers background material on India’s laws banning caste discrimination and closes with comments of outrage from third parties. What the story does not do is ask any questions or offer opposing or independent voices. 

Now it is bad form to criticize a wire service story for being incomplete. There is only so much space in which a reporter can work to produce a coherent story. If the story sought only to report the minister’s claims of prejudice and provided historical context for a non-Indian audience on caste discrimination, its brevity and lack of balance would not be problematic.

However, by going beyond this point and seeking comments from third parties – padding out the story with non-essential opinions – Reuters opens itself to the charge of not doing a proper job of reporting.

Compare its version with the story printed the same day in The Hindu article entitled “Bihar Chief Minister claims temple was ‘purified’ after his visit”. 

Continue reading "Caste in India reporting" by George Conger. 

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