Did CNN alter its questionable story on India's widows in response to criticism? That's what blogger and ISKCON member Vineet Chander suggests. He was one of many people, in and out of SAJA, who found generalizations and questionable assertions in the piece ("Shunned from Society, Widows flock to City to Die"), along the lines of what Arthur Dudney wrote in SAJAforum a few days ago ("The Western Press and its Blanket Statements"). On the SAJA Discussion list, a number of people across the political spectrum found that the story ascribed too much to 'tradition' rather than to more complex social realities.
Vineet noted the story in an item on his blog yesterday, then went back and looked at the CNN website again today. He found 2 examples of how the original piece had been changed. The first example is the opening sentence, while the second example is in the following graf:
Original Piece: "Ostracized by society, India's widows flock to the holy city of Vrindavan waiting to die..."
Changed to: "Ostracized by society, thousands of India's widows flock to the holy city of Vrindavan waiting to die...."
Original Piece: "Hindu widows are shunned from society when their husbands die, not for religious reasons, but because of tradition..."
Changed to: "These Hindu widows, the poorest of the poor, are shunned from society when their husbands die, not for religious reasons, but because of tradition -- and because they're seen as a financial drain on their families..."
After reading it further, I found this change as well:
Original Version: "There are an estimated 40 million widows in India, many of them shunned and stripped of the life they lived when they were married."
Changed to: There are an estimated 40 million widows in India, the least fortunate of them shunned and stripped of the life they lived when they were married."
Another aspect of the story that was criticized, and not just by Hindu activists, was its failure to show how numerous groups in India are contending with this problem. Vineet told SAJAforum that foreign media outlets such as CNN need to work extra hard to grasp this, in order to avoid sensationalizing the issue or mis-representing it.
Like other groups within the Hindu fold, the organization that I work with (ISKCON) is reaching out to help the widows while being sensitive to the religious and cultural context of Vrindavan. Food for Life Vrindavan, an ISKCON affiliate dedicated to promoting grassroots sustainable development in the area, organizes a women’s empowerment program that includes everything from nutritious food distribution to adult education centers and micro crediting. The program collaborates with the National Bank for Rural & Agriculture Development (NABARD) and the Polytechnic Institute for Women in New Delhi. Unfortunately, whether because of ignorance or lack of space, we rarely hear of this kind of stuff in stories like the CNN one. That part of the story needs to be told.
Arthur Dudney left a comment on the story here, noting that while CNN was right to cover this very important issue, it failed to do a thorough job:
There is no attempt in this CNN piece to make it clear that it is not an ironclad rule of Hindu society that widows must be exiled to Vrindavan. The complex reasons for why a widow might be mistreated are dismissed in one graf. As usual, these generalizations wouldn't work if the article were about abuse of the elderly in American nursing homes.