Book Review | Why ‘toughest’ journalism is exactly what matters most

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If there’s ever a way to pierce the massive ego of a know-it-all journalist, it’s with this book.

In our journey from source journalism to right to information to data journalism, you can imagine that we have honed our skills and improved our craft. But no, our preferred method remains the “source”, perhaps because of old habits, perhaps because of our obsession with “access” to those who are important and powerful, and perhaps because it is the easiest way to get information.

But as this book also explains, data journalism is not as easy as it seems. It cannot operate effectively by itself. For example, as Chapter 1 reveals, the National Crime Records Bureau’s annual report does not include all recorded FIRs, only the “most heinous” crimes. This report is used by all media to check crime statistics in India by region and type of crime. It was only by digging a little further the author, journalist Rukmini S., who brought this fact to light. Moreover, the NCRB can only record crimes in accordance with the laws in force in the Indian Penal Code: this makes hate crimes difficult to include in the report.

As Rukmini points out, “hard advocacy and policy work to create the legal framework for this data must take place first.”

The basic assumption of whole numbers and half-truths can be pinned here: that numbers must be understood and that they must also be substantiated. Rukmini is scathing about fellow reporters as well as psephologists, pollsters and TV “experts” who use old clichéd “beliefs” to interpret election data, for example.

She explains how conclusions about “vote banks,” used extensively to categorize election results, don’t match numbers or empirical and anecdotal evidence. They only perpetuate old myths by masking the realities on the ground.

As she writes, “Finally, we may not be able to get the analysts, whose job it is to deliver fast, concise stories on air, to be more circumspect, but there’s no reason to allow these narratives to dominate our understanding of how India really votes”, we see why we are so misled by ourselves. The media has an important role to play in using data to overcome our many shortcomings while presenting India’s many stories to ourselves and the world.

From how India votes to how India loves, marries and eats to how India spends money and ages, we find the data to give us the hard facts. And then, how to interpret these facts to better understand our situation.

One of the most important sections of the book is in the chapter on health. India has not collected enough data during the pandemic and in many cases has gone out of its way to deliberately suppress data to keep Covid-19 numbers and death tolls low. India’s persistent insistence that our death rate has been among the lowest in the world and that India and Modi have handled Covid-19 better than anyone else, does not oppose any data except the one that has been tampered with.

Rather than solving our data collection problems, the pandemic has only made them worse. The book was written before the latest WHO data revealed that India had one of the highest death rates and was hiding millions of deaths. But this is provided for in this book. That we have data to fight government obfuscation attempts comes from private initiatives, fascinatingly described in the book.

Indeed, the author believes that unless we correct our institutional failings on health, hospitalization and disease, data collection on this front will only get worse.

She ends with the hope that the conversation that has broken down between right and left in India can be reignited by data.

Integers… is not a mathematical exercise full of facts and statistics. It’s a nuanced and comprehensive look at how you can use available data – from trusted sources that include government and private efforts – to understand what’s going on around you. This explains how snap polls and sketchy conclusions can be both dangerous and ultimately useless because they obscure the truth and deal in the shadows.

And more importantly, how not having enough data leaves too many questions impossible to ask and therefore unanswered.

Whole Numbers and Half Truths: What Data Can and Cannot Tell Us About Modern India

By Rukmini S.

Westland

p.p. 283, Rs.699

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