“Traditional” Journalism Done Right: NYT’s Coverage of Suicide Among Indian Farmers

Criticizing mainstream media has long turned into a pastime for bloggers and comedians. I’ve added fuel to this flame with an occasional blog post like this one on the sensationalist coverage of biomedical and neuroscience research at The New York Times. But, yesterday, the same paper produced a gut-wrenching story that exemplifies the very best of “traditional” journalism. Ellen Barry’s article on the rising suicide rates among debt-laden Indian farmers (After Farmers Commit Suicide, Debts Fall on Families in India) raises and reframes many urgent questions about poverty, debt, predatory lending and suicide. The story turns the reader into an eyewitness to human desperation, and it forces us to confront eerie similarities between destitute farmers in India and the subtler forms of economic slavery in “developed” nations. Here are a few excerpts.

“After each visit [from money lenders], her husband , a farmer named Veera Reddy, sank deeper into silence, frozen by some terror he would not explain. Three times he cut his wrists. He tied a noose to a tree, relenting when the family surrounded him, weeping. In the end he waited until Ms. Musukula stepped out, and then he hanged himself from a pipe supporting their roof, leaving a careful list of each debt he owed to each money lender. She learned the full sum then: 400,000 rupees, or $6,430.”

“In Andhra Pradesh, the southern state where Ms. Musukula lives, the suicide rate among farmers is nearly three times the national average; since 1995, the number of suicides by India’s farmers has passed 290,000, according to the national crime records bureau…”

“Even death is a stopgap solution, when farmers like Mr. Reddy take their own lives, their debts pass from husband to widow, from father to children. Ms. Musukula is now trying to scrape a living from the four acres that defeated her husband. Around her she sees a country transformed by economic growth, full of opportunities to break out of poverty, if only her son or daughter could grasp one.”

“But the trap that closed on her husband is tightening around her. Like nearly every one of her neighbors, she is locked into a bond with village money lenders — an intimate bond, and sometimes a menacing one. No sooner did they cut her husband’s body down than one of them was in her house, threatening to block the cremation unless she paid.”