An article in yesterday’s New York Times looked at the steady exodus of India’s villagers to the megalopolis of Mumbai. According to a study by Goldman Sachs quoted in the piece, “31 villagers will continue to show up in an Indian city every minute over the next 43 years — 700 million people in all.”
It was a mediocre report (more color than substance), but the part we actually found interesting was a sentence toward the end of the piece, placed in brackets. The reporter, Anand Giridharadas, introduced a few of the characters on a train making its way to the big city, including Deepak Kumar, an eighteen-year-old who had run away from home because he was being beaten by his stepmother. After the train’s arrival, Giridharadas added this strange aside: “[But Mr. Kumar had a discouraging start in Mumbai. His contact did not meet him at the station. This reporter gave him $12 for a room and wished him luck].”
It was hard not to wonder what was behind these brackets. Had the Times become so sensitive following L’Affaire Eichenwald that it decided to make a reporter account for any and all money handed over to a quoted source? Or was it the reporter himself trying to let us know that the donation might have affected in some way his reporting on Mr. Kumar? Whose backside was this bracketed information covering, the Times’ or Giridharadas’?
Frankly, it doesn’t matter to me which one it is. I was just happy to see it. I imagine journalists working in the developing world come across this situation all the time. You see a lot of poverty and have a hard time remaining detached. It would be less than human to not want to help in some way. We just don’t usually hear about it in an article. If it happens all the time, though, I would rather have it be included as context. Twelve dollars might not mean much to us, but 475 rupees is a lot of money to Mr. Kumar. There is always a power dynamic when one is reporting on poor people for a big Western news outlet, and there are unspoken incentives for those poor people to speak when they believe it may result in some kind of payment or assistance. It’s a dynamic that helps shape the story and the kind of quotes a journalist manages to get. Why shouldn’t we be privy to this information?
That said, let’s not go overboard. We’d have articles full of brackets if every cup of coffee had to be included.