By: Aakanksha Tangri
Anya Schiffrin is the director of the media and communications program at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. Her new book, Global Muckraking: 100 Years of Investigative Journalism from Around the World is the first anthology that looks at investigative reporting from the developing world including groundbreaking pieces of journalism from India.
How did the idea of the book come about to be?
I was doing research to prepare a history of journalism class at Columbia’s journalism school and began reading newspapers from the 19th century and books about journalism. I came across King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild which described E.D. Morel’s campaign for better conditions for workers in the Congo who were gathering rubber there when it was ruled by King Leopold. I was intrigued by the idea that there were journalists working on these labour campaigns that I became interested to know what kind of journalism were being written in the 19th century and that led me to learn about Roger Casement who was also researching on rubber conditions on rubber plantations in the Amazon and inevitably that also led me to read many more newspapers in Teen Murti Library and also in Calcutta. I had read anthologies of journalism from the US and UK but reading these old newspapers inspired me to edit a collection that would showcase journalism from the developing world.
What pieces of journalism did you end up choosing for the book?
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I got historians, journalists and activists from around the world to nominate pieces of journalism that they thought were important and then we divided the book into different categories such as rural affairs, women, corruption. Some of the pieces from India include writing by Dwarkanath Ganguly which is introduced by Jayeeta Sharma a piece by Madhusree Mukerjee who introduced Biplabi and a piece on honour killings by a Pakistani journalist. P. Sainath is in the book as well. Amartya Sen has talked so much about the Bengal Famine and the impact the press coverage has had on food supply in India, so I thought it was important to have a piece of journalism from the Bengal Famine. I had a researcher spend a lot of time reading the English-language newspapers from Calcutta and we ended up using one of The Statesman editorials about the 1943 famine in Bengal. As I understand it, war-time censorship from the British prevented the famine from being reported in the English language newspapers in India.
Many of the issues that journalists uncovered and reported on over the last 100 years are still problems today including labour conditions, human rights violations, poverty, corruption, women’s rights. But how has the style of reporting and writing evolved over time?
In English, writing has become more concise. There’s also more use of data and probably more sources. For the modern reader, the storytelling is easier to understand. A lot of 19th century newspapers feel a bit like blogs in the sense that there’s randomness, personal stories and rumours.
Surprising to me was the extent of the links between campaigners and journalists. In the 19th century, campaigners funded journalists and in the 20th they often provided information. For example campaigners gave journalists information for the spate of stories published in the 1980s about the conditions in the Nike shoe factories. Another lesson learned was that for the journalism to have an impact, there have to be other social forces that are really ready to make a change. For example, Jayeeta Sharma talks about how Ganguly was part of Brahmo Samaj- which she describes as a larger movement to reform and modernize Hinduism. Sharma places Ganguly’s journalism in the context of that movement. That’s part of what we wanted to with the book–not just present the journalism, but also give the social context that it came from and to talk about when it did or did not have an impact.
What is biggest challenge facing the craft today?
Right now, there’s an extraordinary amount of good journalism being done. There’s more data available. Social media is helping journalists connect to sources around the world and to each other to do cross-border investigations. The business model that will pay for the journalism is still a question that needs to be resolved. Even countries like India, which have had extremely successful media, are starting to face the same challenges everybody else is facing.
Recently, quite a few western media outlets have opened offices in India and increased their India coverage—what are your thoughts on the journalism scene in the country?
India is known for its lively media scene: the range, the quality, the stories, the coverage is just phenomenal. Like everywhere, there is a lot of commercial low-quality media and reporting but there’s also fantastic reporting. For someone who loves newspapers, being in India is really exciting.
It’s not just an interesting place for people who like to read journalism but there is interesting economic scholarship about the Indian media too. Because of Amartya Sen’s writing about the Bengal Famine and the importance of democracy, there has been research by economists looking at the impact media has on accountability. Economists like Robin Burgess and Tim Besley looked at India and found is that when there are more media outlets government responds more quickly to things like droughts and famine and natural disasters.
Have any recent stories from India caught your eye?
Even though India is so enormous and so varied, there do appear to stories that are national conversations almost and that’s interesting as an outsider watching those conversations. People get outraged and demand action and are really engaged with the news in India.
Over the past year, there have been concerns about press freedom and censorship in India leading up to the election of the new government. There have also been concerns about corporations buying stakes in media houses or buying them entirely.
How can journalists and editors approach this issue?
I haven’t been to India since the elections so I haven’t seen it for myself but usually when new governments come in, journalists are cautious. They need access and they don’t want to alienate the new authorities. Ownership of media outlets certainly affects the kind of news that is covered and that is a problem. As much as possible, it’s good to have boundaries between the financial side and the news side but those boundaries are eroding in many places as financial pressures become more intense–including in the United States. The rise of “native advertising” i.e. sponsored content is an example of this erosion.