The lack of minorities in mainstream media houses impacts the way news is covered
They are a majority of this country’s population. Yet their voice is missing in leadership positions in mainstream media.
Minority communities are severely underrepresented in media houses. An Oxfam India report of 2019 found that, out of 121 leadership positions in mainstream media, 106 were occupied by journalists belonging to the upper castes. According to several journalists, this affects the way news is covered.
No space for minorities’ stories
The Oxfam report quotes Dr. B. R. Ambedkar: “The untouchables have no press.” Piraji Kamble, editor of Dainik Samrat, said he left mainstream media for this reason.
“There is no seriousness in the way we look at Dalit issues, because it is not a big deal to most editors,” he said. He added that while some Dalit news is taken up for its shock value, there is no follow up. “They do not actually care about the victim,” he said.
A study analyses why the upper echelons of media have very little minority representation. It states that apart from cultural differences, many minority journalists also face being are typecast. They are assigned stories exclusively on caste issues and honour-killings, even if their specialisations are politics or the economy.
The inequality extends even to experts called on the discussion panels in news shows, said Kamble. “Most of the panellists called in for discussions about economics, science, anything normal, are upper caste. Minorities are invited when the discussion is about reservations, or a caste-specific topic,” he added.
Varsha Togralkar, a freelance journalist, said English media is even more exclusionary than regional. “There is a belief that you have to speak English a certain way to be considered good enough—which is a hindrance to a lot of journalists from marginalised backgrounds,” she said.
Priyadarshan, a journalist in NDTV, believes another reason for this skewed demographic is systemic discrimination. “When there are vacancies in higher positions, people tend to hire who they know. As there are very few journalists from minority communities in the first place, their chances of advancing are automatically lesser,” he said.
Lack of nuance
Arundhati Roy’s book, ‘The Greater Common Good’, introduced a concept called ‘racial otherness.’ It is where we do not think a lot about people who are not ‘us’’, and subsequently, we do not raise their issues.
This is one of the main problems with lack of diversity in mainstream media, said Priyadarshan. “We lack the depth of understanding which a person of that community can bring to the table. The hijab issue, for example, is a question of progressive values or freedom of dress for us. Someone raised in a Muslim family, however, can better bring out all the angles of the issue—which is what we are missing today,” he said.
Lack of representation also affects our language, he added. “When the story of mob-lynching broke out, several Hindi media houses were calling them ‘go-taskars’, which translates to ‘cow-smugglers’. They were not smuggling those cows, they were just selling them,” he said.
Priyadarshan added that because there is almost no tribal representation in media, we have a very polarized way of looking at tribal issues. “Tribals in Chhattisgarh are caught between Naxals and the government. Do we really get to hear their point of view in a story?” he asked.
Media values and ethics in question
While it is true that a person belonging to a particular community can bring sensitivity while covering that community’s stories, it’s not an ideal situation, said Arafat, executive editor of The Logical Indian.
“During the Hyderabad blasts, The Hindu (newspaper), for example, went above and beyond in covering how Muslim youths feared being stereotyped instead of printing surface sentiment. Now, the situation is very different,” he said. The hijab issue, he added, was covered very haphazardly by majority of the news networks. “AsiaNet did a sting operation where they went to the poor girl’s house pretending to be NGO workers. There was no sensitivity,” he said.
He added that editorial choices guide how news is pursued and presented. “If we come to the conclusion that minorities are necessary to cover news better, we have a vacuum of media ethics and values,” he said.