Monday, May 16, 2011

How a truth is born

The posh media today is neither independent nor particularly critical.

Background: In a recent judgement, the Supreme Court of India observed that so-called honour killings were a slur on the modern Indian nation. The judgement itself was worrying in that it appeared to validate extra-judicial confessions, extended the meaning of certain common words, and displayed a shocking lack of logic and ignorance of the demarcation of power between the legislature and the judiciary (More at

The Washington Post ran the story too, on the very next day, i.e. 10 May 2011, (

The story is attributed to the Associated Press; authorship is anonymous.

But surely, a watchful editor at the Washington Post would have been concerned with this statement:

> "While there are no official figures, an independent study found around 900 people were killed each year in India for defying their elders."

A study by whom? Surely, we don't accept the quoting of statistics without provenance?

Does the figure include teenagers who drive their parents' car in spite of being told not to ("wait till you're 18 and have a license" and all that sort of thing), and get killed in an automobile accident? The language employed, "killed for defying their elders", does not exclude this and other similar cases.

The Telegraph, whilst referring to a separate "honour" killing incident (, five days later wrote:

> "While there are no official figures, an independent study found around 900 people are killed each year in India for defying their elders."

This is exactly the same sentence published by the Washington Post. There is no attribution to the Associated Press. Nor is here the provenance of the study disclosed.

And so a dubious (in that it is too general, and unattributed) claim becomes reinforced, and acquires the attribute of being independently verified.

It would be hard to fault a post-graduate student in France from using this statement in an academic work, given that there are two easily-accessible, apparently independent sources - one in the UK, one in the USA. The academic paper would be cited by an official responsible for policy, or by a politician back in India responsible for legislation.

And so yet another truth of our modern information age is created.


Anonymous said...

It's just a result of newspapers using wire services like the Associated Press. Checking the AP's own site, it's possible to see that the original wire article was written by "NIRMALA GEORGE":

Digging a little further, the "independent study" referred to appears to be a paper by Rajit Malhotra titled " Socio-Legal Perspective of Forced Marriages in the Indian Context: Perceptions and possible solutions" presented at a conference last summer in London on "International Child Abduction, Relocation and Forced Marriage".

Reading the paper online seems to require a password from the conference, but the abstract (and biographies of the authors) can be found here:

ichbins said...

Thanks for your comment, and the AP link.

It contains the exact same sentence. Interestingly, the article is dated May 15, 2011 - i.e. it was written after the article in the Washington Post. It would appear that the AP article reuses, without attribution (which is theoretically acceptable), an older AP article.

How did you find the Malhotra paper, though? Or, rather, how do you know that that's what the AP article refers to, given that the AP article is devoid of any reference?

NB: The original post was changed slightly to remedy a falsey-named newspaper; the Telegraph instead of the Independent.

Anonymous said...

Looking at other AP articles, I would bet that the AP article used as a source is one from May 10 that I saw that had the same "900 people" reference. There may be earlier articles that refer to the original study, but I don't feel like digging anymore in the AP archives :)

The Malhotra paper I found by googling for something like "india honor killings paper" (or something similar) and looking for where the source of this might be. The Malhotra paper generated a bunch of statements last summer similar to what is found in the AP article, so I figure that's the right article. The first reference I found that named the research paper was here:

Incidentally, using wire services to provide articles or background information is common and certainly accepted. I would certainly hope that any post-doc wouldn't try to use non-primary newspaper articles as citations!