Why Sabrina Siddiqui failed as a journalist at White House press conference

Siddiqui’s online abuse is utterly condemnable. But as a journalist, scrutiny is warranted. Her loaded question raised concerns for valid reasons. And no, tracing ancestry to Sir Syed Ahmed Khan doesn’t make you an expert on India or her well-wisher

| Updated: 27 June, 2023 2:03 pm IST

Sabrina Siddiqui, an American journalist of Pakistani origin, sparked controversy during a press conference at the White House with President Joe Biden and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Siddiqui’s question to PM Modi about the treatment of Muslim minorities in India and his government’s stance on improving their rights ignited a heated debate. While some praised her for raising important issues, others criticized her for alleged bias and promoting a specific agenda.

The exchange led to Siddiqui facing online abuse, primarily from supporters of PM Modi, fans, and trolls in India. The South Asian Journalists Association and the Wall Street Journal swiftly came to Siddiqui’s defense, condemning the harassment as unacceptable. Personal attacks and harassment undermine the principles of free speech and create a hostile environment that hinders meaningful discussions on important issues.

READ MORE: PM Modi slays White House Muslim reporter on minority rights issue

Sabrina’s question to PM Modi, apart from the online abuse and trolling, raises valid concerns about journalistic ethics, conflict of interest, and the role of journalism in shaping public opinion. It highlights the problematic aspects of modern journalism, including a narrative-based approach that often prioritizes sensationalism, caters to specific audiences, and seeks validation rather than focusing on objective and factual reporting.

Sebastian Junger, an award-winning journalist, author of ‘War’ & ‘Tribe,’ and documentary filmmaker of ‘Restrepo,’ says, “The point of journalism is the truth. The point of journalism is not to improve society. There are things, facts, and truths that may feel regressive, but it does not matter because the point of journalism isn’t to make everything better. It’s to provide people with accurate information about how things are.”

One of the core principles of journalism is to seek the truth and report it. Journalists are responsible for investigating, verifying, and sharing information with the public objectively and without bias. By adhering to these principles, journalists enable individuals to make informed decisions, engage in public discourse, and hold those in power accountable. The role of journalism is not to advocate for a specific societal outcome or push for reforms. While journalism can contribute to social progress, its primary focus should be on presenting facts and informing the public. Emphasizing accuracy and impartiality helps maintain the integrity of journalism and avoids biased reporting.

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Rarely does one have the opportunity to question a prominent world leader who plays a central role in numerous geopolitical events. It is a disservice to squander such a chance on superficial optics and pose an overtly biased question that perpetuates long-held agendas of vested interests. Such an approach undermines the integrity of responsible journalism.

It is important to acknowledge that there may be truths and facts that challenge existing narratives or beliefs. However, the role of journalism is not to avoid or manipulate such information to fit a specific agenda. Journalists should be committed to presenting reality, even if it appears regressive or uncomfortable to some. By doing so, journalism can maintain credibility and trustworthiness as a reliable source of information. While journalism may not have the explicit goal of improving society, it is undeniable that accurate and transparent reporting can have a positive impact. By exposing injustices, systemic problems, and amplifying marginalized voices, journalism can indirectly contribute to social change. When individuals are informed about the situation, they are better equipped to engage in meaningful discussions, challenge existing norms, and work towards a more just and equitable society.

Sabrina Siddiqui’s question to PM Modi regarding Muslim rights in India can be likened to a problematic question, such as “Have you stopped beating your wife?” This type of question is problematic because it assumes a presupposition that the person being asked has engaged in a certain behavior in the past, without any evidence or basis. It is a loaded question intended to manipulate the response or imply guilt. Such questioning puts the individual in a challenging position, forcing them to accept the premise of the question, even if it is false.

By using this question, Siddiqui assumed that the Indian government engages in curbing the rights of Muslim minorities protected by the Constitution of India. If true, it would tarnish the claim of India as the largest democracy in the world where people of all castes and creeds enjoy full rights. The question presumed guilt without substantiation and seemed intended for the anti-India lobbies in the US who have been advocating for a regime change in India. Though PM Modi handled it well, the conflict of interest of the Wall Street Journal journalist was not lost on audiences worldwide.

Journalistic ethics demand that Siddiqui’s articles also focus on the continued persecution of Hindu women in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, where they are forcibly abducted and coercively married to Muslim men. Their families have to struggle to file FIRs, and even if a case does make it to court with the parents demanding the return of their daughters, the judgments are often against them. Sharia courts, heavily biased against Hindu families, often pronounce the validity of the marriage and the consent of the kidnapped girl, as well as her legal age, based on the opinions of various maulanas in the provinces.

Journalistic ethics require that Siddiqui be equally concerned about minority rights in her country of origin, rather than solely focusing on the largest minority of Muslims in India. In India, along with other minorities such as Jains, Sikhs, Christians, Buddhists, Bahais, Jews, and non-believers, Muslims enjoy full civil and political rights. Ironically, Ahmadiyya Muslims in India are also protected, even though they face persecution in Pakistan. Furthermore, the Islamic Republic of Pakistan’s constitutional amendment states that an Ahmadiyya or non-Muslim cannot become the Prime Minister of the country.

In contrast, India has had a Muslim President, a Sikh Prime Minister, various Muslims in cabinets and the Parliament as legislators, and Indian Army Generals, Navy Commanders, and Air Force flight lieutenants guarding the skies against warring Pakistani missiles. Journalistic ethics and unbiased reporting would require that Siddiqui has a track record of impartiality, objectivity, and dispassionate reporting on minority affairs and is thus well-positioned to pose such questions.

Moreover, an individual’s ancestry does not automatically confer expertise on the current socio-political realities of a country, nor does it serve as proof of their lack of bias or alignment with a particular agenda. Sabrina Siddiqui’s ancestral connection to Sir Syed Ahmed Khan who founded the Aligarh Muslim University ((which became the epicenter for the calls for the Two-Nation Theory that led to the division of India into East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) and West Pakistan) does not grant her an inherent understanding of India’s present circumstances or absolve her of responsibility in asking a loaded question lacking factual basis.

Perhaps, the readers of The Wall Street Journal would have been interested in understanding how India’s economic success translates into comprehensive development for all its citizens. They would have sought insights into the strategies and policies aimed at ensuring inclusive growth, addressing social inequalities, and uplifting marginalized communities. The economic progress of a nation should ideally benefit all its people, and this aspect of India’s story would have been of great significance to the readership of The Wall Street Journal.

Siddiqui missed the opportunity to prioritize factual reporting and the pursuit of truth, instead opting for a question that seemed more geared towards sensationalism. By focusing on evoking strong reactions and garnering attention, she may have neglected her responsibility to provide her readers with accurate information and meaningful insights.

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