The New York Times ran a fascinating story out of rural India over the weekend that to my mind underscored -- with one big caveat -- some of the complicated mechanics and very best qualities of foreign reporting.
Headlined, “How to Get Away With Murder in Small-Town India,” the piece, written in the first person by a veteran correspondent, showed — without explicitly explaining — the powerful connection between religion and everyday cultural expression. The writer was Ellen Barry, who shared a staff Pulitzer Prize while previously working in the paper’s Moscow bureau.
Conveying the daily experiences of ordinary people living in a distant and different culture requires a level of empathetic insight and writing skill greater than that of the average newspaper reporter. Barry’s that kind of journalist; she’s able to turn the travails of ordinary individuals into highly readable copy
This story focuses on how a man got away with murdering his wife -- a circumstance that unfortunately happens far too often in rural India.
For that he can thank corrupt local officials and ingrained male disrespect for women -- particularly poor women -- rooted in South Asia’s Vedic-origin caste system. The Vedas are Hinduism earliest scriptural writings and are estimated to be between 2,500 to 3,500 years old.
This, despite Indian laws making caste discrimination illegal.
(Before any non-Hindu readers dismiss this as solely a Hindu problem, note that the Wikipedia link in the previous paragraph, repeated here, makes clear that in India and neighboring (and primarily Hindu) Nepal, some Buddhists, Christians, Muslims, Sikhs and Jews also have adhered to caste system protocols over the years.)
Barry’s story is long, around 3,500 words, but it stays interesting to its conclusion and it's worth reading in full.
I like how Barry documented her dogged reporting technique, returning time and again to re-interview people, often asking the same reworded questions over and over. That kind of intensive reporting becomes more rare with each passing news cycle.
I also like that she shared her emotional and thought process while reporting the story, thus letting the reader know how her own humanity influenced how she pursued the story. In this case, the first-person feature style makes for a great introduction into the journalistic mind.
Also, I liked Barry’s honesty in noting the vast personal differences and motivations between herself and her subjects -- and how this can lead to reporters being viewed as nosy outsiders who care far more about the story than the individuals they're interviewing.
A lesson I take from that, is that journalists should never forget that they’re not always welcome. And that even if they seem to be, their subjects may be suspicious of their intentions. Journalists have no moral or legal claim that demands private citizens must accept their questioning.
This has major implications for journalists working in foreign environs. But not just foreign environs. It's also worth keeping in mind considering the current antagonism directed toward the so-called mainstream American news media fanned by President Donald Trump’s constant claims of “fake news.”
In short, it's best to stay humble. You may think you're doing good as a reporter by righting an ill embedded in a society. But it's a complicated world, so don't be surprised if your subjects aren't overjoyed by the presence of a journalist in their midst. Here’s a bit of how Barry addressed this:
… After a while, the constable indicated that he had no more time to discuss the case. As he left, he turned back to me.
“This is the trick that foreign countries like yours are playing,” he said. “You will write something. People will read what you write, and say, ‘This country will progress only after 100 years.’"
I had a degree of sympathy for the constable on his last point.
Over the past decade, in Russia and then India, I have been asked versions of this question hundreds of times: Who are you to come here and tell us what is wrong with our system? And it’s true, the whole enterprise of foreign correspondence has a whiff of colonialism. During the years I have worked abroad, Americans’ interest in promoting their values in the world has receded, slowly and then precipitously. I doubted the regional hegemons filling the vacuum would do better, but still, I wasn’t sure it was such a bad thing.
I worried, as the constable suggested, that I wrote too much about violence. In India, in particular, where millions of people move out of extreme poverty every year, there is a great deal to be hopeful about — the transformation that comes with mobile phone and internet access, or with young women cashing their first paychecks, or even something like installing a family’s first air-conditioner.
I wrote those stories, too, but the move from dire poverty to ordinary poverty is subtle and difficult to capture. Violence writes itself.
I noted at the onset that I appreciated this story, with one caveat. Since this is, GetReligion, regular readers have probably already guessed that the caveat has something to do with religion. And it does.
Barry, as also noted above, showed through her vivid writing, but did not explicitly explain, how the connection between religion and culture supported what transpired between the subjects of her story.
She could have done a bit more explaining. I doubt most readers -- even more sophisticated Times readers -- are fully cognizant of the Indian caste system’s inner-workings.
But maybe she did? It's possible that an editor cut material intended to help readers better understand what was glossed over at one point in the story as “caste rules.” Perhaps an editor did this because at 3,500 words, he or she felt the story was long enough?
Either way, the piece needed more on how pervasive caste remains in Indian society because of its deep roots in Hinduism. The details matter.
Still, this is a story that's more than just a cut above the average. Give it a read. Then, if you like, leave a comment below detailing your take on the piece.