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Two German journalists teamed up with an Indian colleague for an investigative research on silicosis, an under-reported global health issue.
In autumn 2017, the team of three reporters Petra Sorge, Julia Wadhawan and Sunaina Kumar published “Silicosis — The Silent Killer” in eight different media outlets, ranging from Der Spiegel magazine, Deutschlandfunk, Al Jazeera and BBC to The Hindu daily paper. In addition, the outcome of the reporting was taken onboard by industry stakeholders.
Here is how they did it.
How did two German reporters end up investigating the rather unknown disease silicosis in India?
Killing thousands of mine workers in India every year, silicosis is an incurable lung disease caused by inhalation of silica dust found in rock, sand and other building materials. The stones extracted from these Indian mines are exported across Europe — with Germany being one of the major EU importers. Yet, few Germans know that the stones they decorate their house with might have imperilled the health of Indian miners.
Covering a sensitive and complex topic like silicosis required extensive fieldwork in India. Thus, the German reporters Petra Sorge and Julia Wadhawan decided to involve the expertise and local insights of an Indian colleague. They reached out to Sunaina Kumar, who had extensive experience in covering social, development and gender issues across India. This German-Indian cross-border partnership proved highly beneficial.
For instance, it helped to overcome the cultural barrier that sometimes made the interviews with the locals difficult. As Petra explains: “Indians want to be polite and sometimes avoid a simple yes-or-no answer out of fear to be impolite.”
An additional challenge was “to understand these really complex structures on the ground: who’s working for whom? No one has official contracts, and mine owners did not want to talk on the record,” Julia adds.
In these situations, Sunaina was of tremendous value for a better communication with the sources and a more accurate picture of the reality on the ground.
One of the advantages of teaming up with other reporters is that you can pitch the story to a broader range of media platforms. “Before, I was writing a story for one media outlet,” Petra recalls. “Through this project, I learned that it pays off to aim higher and reach larger audiences through various media in different countries.”
To succeed in reaching a broad audience, the team agreed to tackle different angles for multiple stories. “We had a fair idea of the way journalism works and what we wanted, but some things just evolve when you’re there,” Sunaina explains.
As most mine workers who suffered from silicosis had been forced to quit working, the team decided to focus on women who work outside the actual mines.
“We could actually see how they work. Furthermore, their case was more under-reported,” Julia says. “The women’s angle was also the one which appealed the most to my editors.”
Not only did their investigation receive a lot of attention from German, Indian as well as international media outlets, it also made a considerable impact in the trade industry.
Petra was invited to give a presentation at a conference of Indian and German stone traders. As a result, industry stakeholders reached out to IGEP, the Indo-German Environment Partnership Programme, to guarantee fair working conditions for Indian miners. Similarly, the reporting encouraged Xertifix, a German fairtrade label for natural stone, to launch a 3-year project to tackle silicosis in India.
Their stories also sparked considerable protest from trade organisations and mine owners in India. “When we published a story about a young girl suffering from silicosis, mine owners from Burkura mailed to the BBC claiming that the story was told under false pretences. Trade organisations and mine owners in India just continue to pass the buck to each other,” says Sunaina.
For Sunaina, the biggest accomplishment is the increased awareness of silicosis in India: “What most surprised me is that many people did not know about the disease, including journalists. One of the reasons why silicosis is under-reported is because it is mainly a problem for the underprivileged.”
Both Petra and Julia are convinced they couldn’t have succeeded the same way without a local journalist: “We heavily relied on Sunaina’s network in India. She was the one who brought us to the people we needed to see to cover this story,” Petra sums up the experience of the cross-border project.
“I would even go as far as saying it is necessary to have a local reporter to support you,” Julia adds. “Otherwise, if you don’t know the language and the culture, you always depend on the people you work with, like NGOs or translators, who always have their own agenda.”
Also, Sunaina agrees that despite some challenges it is highly valuable to work together with other reporters. “Working as a team we had to constantly share our thoughts and discuss the approach we wanted to take. But it was hugely beneficial for the three of us to learn from each other.”
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