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How NY Times and Washington Post cover India

-- By Dr Ramesh N. Rao

The essay by Rajiv Malhotra on the anti-India bias in CNN's coverage has given voice to what many people have felt and expressed in private and on Internet discussion lists before. Even the Indian government has weighed in by telling the foreign media in India to stop sounding patronizing1. Careful and detailed content analyses of Western media should therefore be done to supplement such analyses undertaken by Malhotra and to heed to complaints of governments. That there is bias in the reporting of news in the mainstream media in the US has been known all along. Media do construct reality. As Edelman notes, “Those involved in making, reporting and editing news… have an incentive to shape it so as to attract audiences and, sometimes, to encourage particular interpretations through its content and form"2.

With the publication of Bernard Goldberg'sBias(2002, Regnery Press), in which he bemoans the partisan reporting by CBS' star journalists, there is renewed debate about what and how the media report and how they represent the world to their readers, viewers and listeners. There was also a recent article by Vidal3 in which he excoriates the New York Times for its shoddy reporting of the vote recount in Florida by independent newspapers and agencies.

A report in News India Times 4 criticizes the New York Times for highlighting India's poverty while purportedly reporting about the new Indian game show, Kaun Banega Crorepati and compares the Times' reporting on that issue with that of the Washington Post. Neil Parekh, writing about the Times' coverage says: “It is not objectionable to write about poverty in India. It exists. It is a problem. It is one of the great unfulfilled promises of Independent India. In this instance, however, writing about the hit TV show through India's slums was unnecessary.” I also mentioned in one of my previous columns on Sulekha that The New York Times ignored Vajpayee's visit to the US in November, did not seek (or was not given) an interview with Vajpayee while it showcased its interview with General Musharraf of Pakistan and similarly ignored Advani's visit to the US with cursory reports on his talks with American leaders this past week. So, are these individual cases of misrepresentation or silence or a pattern of bias and prejudice?

A year ago, I sought and got a grant from the Infinity Foundation to do a content analysis of The New York Times and The Washington Post's coverage of India-related matters between the years 1998 and 2000. The project aimed at recording why, how, where and if media bias creeps in the reporting of news from and about India by US newspapers. In this first of a series of reports I will describe the framework of my study.

Framework: The United States is now home to more than a million and a half Indian-Americans and there is a heightened awareness both here and in India about how India is described and characterized for American readers/viewers. My study of the two newspapers will systematically observe and record bias, both positive and negative, in the reporting of news from India, as well as about India-related events in the US and the reasons why and how such bias emerges. Positive bias would be indicated through the lauding of events or people without substantial support or evidence and negative bias would be indicated through the denigration or criticism of events and people, again without enough support or evidence.

The methodology will include a recording of all of the items published in the two newspapers between January 1, 1998 and December 31, 2000. Each item will be read carefully and judged for accuracy, balance and fairness. At present there is no particular coding scheme available in published scholarly articles that would allow one to systematically 'measure' bias: which means that the concept of 'bias' in media reporting has not been 'operationalized'. There is of course some textual analysis (the close examination of 'language and rhetoric, of style and presentation') done of news coverage, like the one done by Shah of American news coverage of Asian Indians between 1906 and 19235. In addition to doing some 'bean counting' (how may reports, how many words devoted to which issues, how many photographs, etc.), I will use textual analysis too since, as Shah points out, “It is then possible to ascertain the specific ways certain aspects of issues are highlighted and given prominence through techniques such as linguistic emphasis, treatment, intensity and striking imagery, while other aspects are downplayed, delegitimized, or ignored.” One of the well-known works of bias in media coverage is Edward Said's book on the American reporting on the Middle East and of Islam6.

India is home to a billion people, is a nuclear power and is confronting some volatile issues on a variety of fronts -- political, economic and social. India is the largest democracy in the world and contains the most diverse of peoples, languages, religions and cultures. As such, reporting about India requires experience, expertise and maturity. There has been some good reporting by Western correspondents like Abe Rosenthal of The New York Times who reported from India during the 1960s and by Mark Tully (now Sir Mark Tully) of the British Broadcasting Service who covered India for more than two decades. Recently, Francois Gautier of Le Figarohas emerged as a sympathetic observer of the Indian scene.

However, there have also been reporters who have shown a disinclination to report objectively about India (for example, Barbara Crossette of The New York Times who was Delhi bureau chief from August 1988 to July 1991)7. Moreover, Crossette's replacement, John Burns, didn't seem to do well and his reporting has been criticized as biased and uninformed8. Dhume, writing about Burns says, “Any publication, even one as respected as the Times, can be forgiven the occasional slip-up. But mistakes on this scale reveal a deeper malaise. Simply put, Mr. Burns does not have a grasp of elementary Indian history and politics.”

But to provide balance to the above evaluation, read what Tunku Varadarajan has to say about Indian-Americans complaining about American press reporting on India: “…The target for the Desi Whiner was Celia Dugger, one of The New York Times' two India correspondents. Ms Dugger had just written a long and laudable piece on a feud in a small village near Mathura which had flared up after a boy from one caste eloped with a girl from another… It was a classic piece of reportage from India's ugly underbelly and worthy of an award. But the Whiner did not see it that way. 'Hmph, ' he spluttered. 'There they go again, portraying us as backward people who don't even live in the 20th century'”9. Supporting Varadarajan's analysis of Indian-Americans' response to American reporting of India-related news, Sreenath Sreenivasan of SAJA says, “Indian readers will always complain about the newspaper coverage of India. They're notoriously thin-skinned when it comes to American criticism of India. It's fine for the desis to sit in Washington or New York and criticize India's political and cultural systems. But if a foreign journalist does it, they'll complain and crib and rant”10.

While most journalists pride themselves on objective presentation of news and views, media presentations could be as skewed as the observations of lay people. The media bias appears not only because individual reporters, commentators and editors of media outlets are biased and/or poorly informed but also because of some of the constraints that are part of the system. One constraint surely is space and time: space for newspapers and magazines and time for radio and television. They don't have all that they wish to or want to have. This results in two practices: agenda setting and gate-keeping.

Agenda setting is the practice when the mass media pay attention to particular events or issues, or set the agenda for the major topics of discussion for individuals and society. Researchers have argued that the mass media do not so much as tell us what to think but rather tell us what to think about. For example, in the 1986 elections in the US, candidates spoke about the problems of crime and illegal drugs. Researchers documented during that period a big leap in the media's attention to drugs, especially to crack cocaine. In April 1986, surveys showed that only two percent of the people picked drugs as the nation's most important problem. By September 1986, after the media blitz on drugs, 13 percent of the people picked drugs as the nation's most important problem11.

Gate-keeping occurs when editors, producers and other media managers function as message filters. They make decisions about what types of messages actually get produced for particular audiences.

Media bias is not a phenomenon that is restricted to any one country or society or a particular newspaper or television producer. There is bias in the American media and there is bias in the India media; and surely there is bias in Indian-American media (see for example, my critique of India Abroadon ( As Indian-Americans become more aware of what is said about their “home” country and about themselves they have begun to notice how both news items and commentary pieces can be skewed.

It is not just in the presenting of news or the airing of opinions that bias creeps in but even in the selection and editing of letters to the editor. For example, on Friday, July 2 1999, The Washington Post published a letter by Govind Bangarbale countering a letter from Ghulam Nabi Fai of the Kashmiri American Council. The Post printed Bangarbale's letter but deliberately inserted the phrase, “the Hindu Fundamentalist BJP, ” which was not part of Mr. Bangarbale's letter. He had simply said, “India's foremost political party, the BJP” to which the newspaper in an obvious editorial comment inserted its own opinion about the BJP. Rarely is bias so obvious and blatant, but the newspaper that gave us Watergate indicated in this one instance how news and views are shaped to suit the newspaper's ideological positions.

This is not to say that the bias is only evident in some newspapers and only on some issues. However, it is important to record the bias, wherever and however they appear. The bias can be noticed in choice of headlines, the wording of surveys and polls, choice of pictures, the screening out of oppositional voices, the reliance on particular sources, etc.

Much of the past research has focused on doing a content analysis of newspapers to record 'how much' reporting occurs about a particular region in a particular newspaper or a particular set of newspapers and what kinds of 'news' flows from the West to the rest of the world and vice versa. The problem was first addressed on a large scale by the MacBride Commission which submitted its report to UNESCO12. In addition, there were a number of studies and analyses of the news media in the 1970s and 1980s.

As Gans13 notes, those studies were reactions to the rise of television news to national prominence and the “disjunction of social science and journalistic world views around a series of major political events and crises.” These studies were mostly about the media operations within the country. He suggested that scholars should examine the journalistic enterprise from outside the news organizations, as well as do a “conceptual and ideological stock-taking.” Finally, he says, “the first task awaiting news researchers is a revival of qualitative content analysis, to understand what various news media say, show, assume and value about a range of major issues and institutions in US life” (p. 181). The only thing I would change/add is that the same qualitative content analysis should also be about how those values affect the reporting of news from elsewhere. That is the primary objective of my study.

Reporters' credentials and preparation: There are more newspaper, television, radio and news agency reporters now being sent to India. What criteria are used to choose/select these reporters? Some organizations choose local reporters (for example, CNN's New Delhi bureau chief is Satindra Bindra, a native Indian), whereas some others send American reporters (for example, the New York Times has always sent someone from the US as their India correspondent). What are the reasons for doing so? Is it done consistently, in terms of sending only US reporters as their foreign correspondents all over the world or whether it is selective, meaning US reporters only for certain bureaus? Talking to SAJA, it seems John Burns said that the New York Times has never hired an Indian as bureau chief because the newspaper felt that Indians could not report objectively about their country. Dhume commenting on this colonial, racist attitude says about Burns' reporting: “This borders on the comical. If it weren't for its grammatically correct English, the Times' coverage of these elections could well have been written by a Congress Party public relations flack”14. This is the same Burns who is now in Pakistan writing adulatory pieces about Musharraf and his policies.

How do American correspondents manage the language problem? A number of critical reports about the reliance of US reporters on their English media colleagues in India for news and views show that the bias is in favor of presenting the “elite's” perception of India. If the reporter does not know the local language/s s/he is forced to rely on interlocutors who speak English. But many such English speakers in India present their versions colored by class, caste, education and western value systems. How do the correspondents deal with such a problem?

Range of the study: The content analysis will also probe questions, for example, regarding the portrayal of Indian peoples as well as their religions and if there are any cases of stereotyping Indic religions as the cause for poverty, for negating the world, for encouraging meaningless rituals, encouraging violence against other religionists, or for inviting social action by the likes of a Mother Teresa. Are 'facts' presented in reports supported by contextual evidence? For example, is a report on poverty in a certain region of India accompanied by a quick summary of India's colonial history and how chronic poverty was the fallout from colonial policies? Or, more importantly, what are the kinds of 'frames' chosen to present the news narrative and why are those frames chosen instead of others?

In the case of the presentation and description of social problems, I will check to see if reports of rape or abuse of women or class conflicts or violence are presented in such a manner that readers get a comparative perspective through the presentation of statistics of such occurrences in the US or in West European countries. Any attribution of societal and/or social problems to religious practices in India will be compared to see if social problems in the US are similarly attributed to religion and religious practices.

I will also be looking for comparisons the correspondents make or don't make when reporting news. Why is it interesting to compare the per capita income of Indians and Americans in a report on economic matters, for example and why is it not expected to compare abuse of women in the two countries?

Another question that will shape this analysis is whether newspaper narratives and reports are framed by 'superiority' myths or beliefs: that is, if there are clear textual indications in those narratives which claim, for example, that the West is more cultured or civilized, or that Western traditions and practices are preferable, or rational, or correct as opposed to the Indian traditions that are problematic, or backward, or not up to Western standards. Do such narratives reify or support the readers' negative or positive perceptions of India?

Originally published on Tuesday, January 29, 2002.

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