Shreya Khaitan, IndiaSpend

Country/area: India

Organisation: IndiaSpend

Organisation size: Small

Cover letter:

I have been a journalist for seven years. I started off at The Wall Street Journal as a reporter for their India blog, India Real Time. There I researched for a series on drug resistant tuberculosis and wrote on a number of topics, ranging from reservation for women in Indian politics to the black and yellow taxis plying the city’s roads.

Returning to India, after a course on global human development at Georgetown University in Washington DC, I wanted to combine data, development issues and journalism, and I found my home at IndiaSpend, where I have spent the last five years. I write on several issues, mainly education and health. I also edit stories. My report on a pilot TB care programme in Gujarat’s Mehsana district won the 2017 REACH Media Award for excellence in reporting on TB.

Through my stories, I try to give more nuanced, detailed and accurate information on major developmental issues in India. During the Covid-19 surge, I wrote about children’s issues that were being forgotten in the surge of the virus.

More often than not, journalism that gets the most attention is either reactive or sensational, and one very important aspect, that of delving deeper to provide a more thoughtful, nuanced view on issues–such as children with Covid-19 and orphans–is missed. I try to do exactly that in the stories I have submitted for this award. 

Description of portfolio:

During the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic in India, misinformation abound, especially related to children and Covid-19, not just on social media but also in news media. In these two stories, I attempted to get the facts straight on two bits of misinformation:

1. More children are suffering from Covid-19 and more are getting serious Covid-19 in the second wave

2. There is a tide of abandoned minors because of their parent’s death from Covid-19

I used the limited data that was available, and combined that with testimony from doctors, child protection experts and with conversations with people on the ground. This was a case where data could give only part of the facts, a common situation during the pandemic (and otherwise), but the truth became clear with reporting.

On the first, I found a common error we all make, by conflating large numbers with a problem being more common. More children in India were getting Covid-19, but not because children were more susceptible to the Delta variant but because cases overall were increasing; in fact in 2021, a similar proportion of all cases were in children as was the case in the previous wave in 2020. Understandably, the number of serious cases was also larger than previous waves, but the risk of severe infection in children remained about the same. I also explained the different manifestations of Covid-19 in children and what doctors and parents suggested as the best ways to care for suffering children.

One of the main challenges here was to get through to parents as well as children to understand their experiences of the disease. We were able to even get children on video for this, while also talking (not on video) to a parent whose child had suffered greatly because of a post-Covid-19 manifestation called Multi-Inflammatory Syndrome.

On the second, social media posts amplifying requests on assisting children orphaned because of Covid-19, were picked up by news media, and turned into stories, including by international media, on how a surge of orphaned children in India needed help. There was not much public data at that time, since data comes with a lag, but I got access to some data from the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights, presented in a court case. This, I combined with ground reporting to know whether organisations were seeing a manifold rise in orphaned children. The reality, I found, was that there were fewer orphaned children than the wild estimates. In addition, the issue was not one of abandaned children, but that of help for kin and extended family to support these children. I used the opportunity to explain why calls on social media to adopt orphaned children were illegal and why children are better taken care of by immediate and extended family, if they are happy to take them in.

The challenge with this story was to get the facts straight without undermining the very real and heart-wrenching struggle of orphaned children.

The two other stories covered the major issues that children were facing due to the economic devastation wrought by the pandemic, and due to prolonged schools closures, which impacted children’s mental health and learning.

I wrote the story on how Covid-19 disrupted education with a focus on children’s voices–that we needed to hear from those who had been impacted, rather than experts.

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