New York Times writer: The most sympathetic sources may lie -- even Rohingya refugees

One of journalism’s abiding truisms is that you’re only as good as your sources. Here’s exhibit A from the dawn of my own career, which is to say the mid-1960s.

My first newspaper job was as a glorified copy boy at Newsday, then headquartered in the New York City suburb of Garden City, Long Island. I say glorified because in addition to doing a lot of fetching I also wrote a spate of local obits when no one else was available.

I worked the overnight shift and it was on one such occasion that I called the home of a local man that a funeral home reported had died of natural causes.

Yeah, we did that, ignoring the intrusiveness of it all.

If we were lucky a relative or friend of the deceased would answer. To my surprise, the widow picked up the phone. She not only agreed to provide a few details of her husband’s life but sounded cheerful in the process. I took that to be odd but did not ask her why she sounded as she did out of my newbie reticence.

The following day, instead of running my three- or four-graph obit, the paper ran a lengthier piece on its prime news pages that carried the byline of a police beat reporter. My ebullient widow had been arrested on suspicion of murdering her husband.

Oh well, live and learn. Not every source is reliable.

I relate this (at the time, highly embarrassing) personal story as a lead in to a remarkable New York Times piece written by its Southeast Asia bureau chief Hannah Beech, who I've praised before.

In addition to filing the expected stories on Buddhist Myanmar’s genocidal attacks on it's Rohingya Muslim minority, Beech ably provides keen insight into how the media influences the conflict. She does so with great sensitivity. That makes her the perfect GetReligion subject, in my book.

I sang her praise in this 2017 post that focused on the Myanmar government's manipulation of Facebook and similar social media to spread its “fake news” version of events.

This time, she’s laid bare how the Rohingya are also not above manipulating journalists by feeding them fake news in the form of embellished victims’ stories intended to evoke greater sympathy for the Rohingya and greater antipathy toward the Myanmar government.

Here’s the top of her piece, which ran under the headline, “The Rohingya Suffer Real Horrors. So Why Are Some of Their Stories Untrue?

LEDA, Bangladesh -- The four young sisters sat in a huddle, together but alone.
Their accounts were dramatic: Their mother had died when their home was burned by soldiers in Rakhine State in western Myanmar. Their father was one of thousands of Rohingya Muslims who had disappeared into official custody and were feared dead.
Somehow, the sisters -- ages 12, 8, 5 and 2 -- made their way to refuge in Bangladesh. An uncle, who had been living for years in the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh, had taken them in, adding the girls to his own collection of hungry children.
“My parents were killed in Myanmar,” said the eldest girl, Januka Begum. “I miss them very much.”
I was reporting on children who had arrived in the camps without their families. An international charity, which had given financial support to the uncle, brought me to meet the girls.
Within an hour, I had a notebook filled with the kind of quotes that pull at heartstrings. Little of it was true. ... Yet I have seen Rohingya people quoted in the foreign news media telling stories that I know are not true. Their accounts, in some cases, are too compelling, like a perfect storm of suffering.

Get the crux of all that?

“Little of it was true.“

“Yet I have seen Rohingya people quoted in the foreign news media telling stories that I know are not true.”

That's not nothing.

The Rohingya are certainly not the first victims -- space limitations compel us to ignore for now the oodles of politicians, public relations pros and other sources who can also be untrustworthy -- to manipulate facts in an attempt to prod the international community to do more to alleviate their suffering.

(Which, by the way, doesn't end when they make it to comparative physical safety in neighboring, and also Muslim, Bangladesh. This Wall Street Journal piece (paywall alert) makes clear that many Bangladeshis are less than overjoyed about the Rohingya taking refuge in their impoverished nation.)

It's understandable that desperate people -- no matter how naturally compelling the abominable reality of their situation may be -- might lie to garner greater sympathy. But if journalism is indeed the first draft of history, what does this mean for the accuracy of reportorial accounts that later historians will rely upon to produce their academic  histories?

How “authoritative” will they be? In this golden age of media misrepresentation, who can say any more?

I alluded above to Beech’s sensitivity toward how her reporting, her presence, impacts those she interviews, beyond encouraging some of them to embellish their woes. Here is a section of her recent story that further illuminates the journalistic process.

For every person quoted, I’d estimate that at least a dozen others were left in my notebooks. But a reporter’s necessary skepticism -- which governs our work in every story -- only contributes to the invasion of privacy. How must it feel for a Rohingya woman, who admits to a stranger that she was raped, when she realizes that her story is being doubted?

Yes, how must it feel?

And why didn't my Newsday editor -- or any editor I've worked under -- or my journalism school professors, ever advise me about being sensitive toward the pain of those I'm interviewing? (I've seen reporters fired on the spot for refusing to intrude on the privacy of mourning family members who asked to be left alone.)

Sensitivity is a trait you either learn about on the job over time, or you don't and remain an insensitive reporter for the length of your career.   

Please read Beech’s entire story. It's filled with examples of her exemplary reporting process that can only benefit veteran pros, newbie reporters and all others interested in how journalism actual works.

While you're at it, I advise all to also read this blockbuster Reuters investigative report that painstakingly details the murder of 10 Rohingya village men by Myanmar soldiers last September.

Two local Reuters journalists were arrested for uncovering the massacre. As of this writing, they remain in custody, charged with breaking Myanmar’s Official Secrets Act.

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