Newsrooms need a dose of diversity

BY KALPANA SHARMA| IN Opinion | 31/01/2013
News channels were quick to brand Ashis Nandy as casteist, but newsrooms themselves are staffed overwhelmingly by upper castes,
says KALPANA SHARMA. Pix: Ashis Nandy
Kalpana Sharma
Whether the remarks of academic and well-known sociologist Ashis Nandy at the Jaipur Literary Festival were casteist or not, the media – and particularly television media – is being blamed for making a mountain out of a molehill. If the discussion had not been recorded for television, the issue would probably never have reared its head. But given the lust for controversy with which 24-hour news television is afflicted, it was inevitable that an off-the-cuff remark such as the one made by Nandy would be fodder for news channels. And of course the unfortunate fallout has been the calls for Nandy’s arrest under various laws, a reaction far out of proportion with the so-called ‘crime’, if it can even be called that. 

This controversy, however, raises other issues that are predictably not being addressed by the media. For instance, does the fact that mainstream media amplified an ostensibly insensitive remark suggest that the media is sensitive to issues of caste? In the absence of a detailed study on this issue, one can only make generalised observations but it would be fairly accurate to say that even if mainstream media does not indulge in outright casteism, it is not necessarily sensitive to caste issues in its reporting – in what it covers and what it chooses not to cover.  

A related question would be the composition of our newsrooms – in both print and electronic media. Do they reflect the diversity of the country in terms of caste and creed, or are they largely dominated by people from the higher classes and castes? Once again, the absence of surveys to establish the reality either way is a limitation. Yet, we can make an educated guess that it is mostly the upper castes that dominate the news media. 

A survey done by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) in 2006 of 315 decision-makers in 37 Delhi-based English and Hindi publications as well as TV channels found that 90 per cent in English print media and 79 per cent in TV were from the upper castes. This is a small sample but even if it is extended to the whole country, the figures are unlikely to be that different today.

Yet, diversity in the newsrooms is hardly ever a topic of discussion in the media or even internally within media houses. One exception is The Caravan magazine, which advertised for a staff writer last year under the category ‘Journalistic Diversity (Reserved Position)’. In the job description, it stated: 

“The near absence of journalists from Dalit communities in the Indian media has created a noticeable decline in its sensitivity to issues of caste, communalism and discrimination. Committed to promoting greater diversity, both in the workplace and in the way news is reported, The Caravan seeks a Staff Writer (position reserved for SC/ST) to join its fast-paced New Delhi-based newsroom.”

The deadline is March 2013.  It would be interesting to watch the kind of responses The Caravan gets for this.

A common excuse by media bosses if asked why they do not promote diversity is that they do not get candidates from lower castes and that in any case their commitment is to hire the most qualified of those who apply and not to worry about issues like diversity. Clearly, more from other castes and classes will apply if they get a chance to get trained as well as those who can access the better schools of journalism. The Asian College of Journalism in Chennai has made a special effort by offering four scholarships to Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe journalists in their courses which otherwise would be out-of-reach to many of them. What is stopping other journalism schools from following this example?

Even if it takes time to build up a pool of well-trained SC/ST journalists who can compete for jobs in mainstream media, are there steps that can be taken to enhance diversity in principle today? 

In the United States, this issue has been under discussion for several decades. In 1975, when the American Society of News Editors (ASNE) surveyed the news media, it found that there were only 3.95 per cent journalists who were black or belonged to other minorities. To correct that, they decided in 1978 to work towards parity in newsrooms by the year 2000. To do this they suggested that newspapers open a diversity department, that special scholarships be offered to black and other minorities, that proactive efforts be made to recruit journalists other than white, and that every year, a racial/ethnic census of the newsroom be conducted. Remarkably 60 per cent of members of the ASNE signed on to this plan.

Yet the year 2000 came and went and not enough had changed, as noted by Bryan Monroe in Nieman Reports (Fall 2003). In an article titled ‘Newsroom diversity: Truth vs Fiction’, Monroe points out that 90 per cent of people in newsrooms in the US were white and mostly male in 2003 (that might have changed marginally in terms of gender and race balance in the last decade).

But he makes some useful points on why diversity is desirable and important:

“Too many newspapers still cannot fully cover the richness and complexity of their communities because their staffs come from a limited perspective. We are unable to regularly listen to those in the shadows and too often incapable of hearing voices different from our own. We, therefore, are telling our readers an incomplete, inaccurate story. And, in the process, we are practicing bad journalism.”

Monroe’s remarks could well apply to mainstream Indian media. The lack of diversity in our newsrooms is also reflected in our coverage of so many subjects that depict the extent of deprivation and discrimination in this country. Of course, the reason that such stories are excluded is not entirely due to the kind of journalists that inhabit the newsroom but principally because of the preoccupations of proprietors with the market to which their media cater. But it is certainly worth discussing whether even within the limited space available to report on deprivation, the real stories of what people ‘in the shadows’, as Monroe calls them, are suffering are often never told because we don’t hear them. 

These are the real voices that the media needs to amplify, of people who are never heard by those who make policy, who remain marginalised decades after Independence for no other reason than the accident of birth that has relegated them to a particular caste. Clearly, we cannot assume that more SC/ST journalists will automatically add up to better coverage of these issues. Journalists from other castes have been writing on such subjects for decades and with sensitivity. But the advantage of a diverse newsroom is that it represents a wider set of life experiences and therefore also brings in a wider spectrum of approaches to stories. It would make for better journalism in the end because, as Monroe suggests, the media would not be telling ‘an incomplete, inaccurate story’ as it tends to do a lot of the time.
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