Dalits and a Lack of Diversity in the Newsroom by J Balasubramaniam
This article explores the issue of dalits’ inclusion in the media industry. It argues that under-representation of dalits in Indian media leads to an exclusion of news on dalits.
[This was presented in the “National Conference on Ethical Issues and Indian Media” held on 26 and 27 November 2010 and in Periyar University, Salem, Tamil Nadu.]
[J Balasubramaniam (firstname.lastname@example.org) is with the Department of Journalism and Science Communication, Madurai Kamaraj University.]
The basis of this article started with my personal experience when searching for a job. After completing my MA in Communication, I came to Chennai to become a journalist in the Tamil media; I was called by a Tamil daily to attend an interview for the job of a reporter. In the first stage of the interview, they asked me to write about myself in both Tamil and English. I wrote and gave it to the editor, after which I had to attend a personal interview. I was nervous and was recalling the ethics of the media, the first newspaper of India and the day’s headlines. At the interview session, the editor of the newspaper, began his first question with a smile and asked in Tamil,
Balasubramaniam, where are you from?
I am from Tirunelveli sir.
Editor: I hope Pillamars1 are numerically in majority, isn’t it?
Me: Yes sir, most of them reside in town.Editor: Do you belong to the pillamar caste? Me: No sir.
Editor: We will inform you when we need people, ok.
Me:Thank you sir.
I did not receive a call from that office after the interview.
No Dalits in Indian Media
Kenneth J Cooper, an African-American and the then New Delhi bureau chief of The Washington Post, noted in the mid-1990s that “India’s majority lower castes are minor voices in newspapers” (Cooper 1996). B N Uniyal, a Delhi-based journalist, followed it up and he wrote, “Suddenly I realised that in all the 30 years, I had worked as a journalist, I had never met a fellow journalist who was a dalit; no, not one” (Uniyal 1996). Based on this information, in the late 1998 a dalit organisation presented a memorandum to the Press Council of India. The memorandum was titled “End Apartheid in Indian media – Democratise Nation’s Opinion” and called for the creation of a national commission for democracy in the Indian media to ensure that by 2005 the caste composition of Indian media organisations was roughly in proportion to the numbers in the population (Jeffrey 2001).
Robin Jeffrey writes in his article that, “Almost no dalits worked in the Indian press as reporters or subeditors. There were no dalit editors and no dalit-run dailies.” Siddharth Varadarajan (2006) also wrote in The Hindu, “if television and newspaper coverage of the anti-reservation agitation was indulgent and one-sided, the lack of diversity in the newsroom is surely a major culprit” and concludes with a suggestion “to diversify the newsroom by consciously bringing in those sections (dalit, tribal, OBC, and Muslims) of society who have hitherto been excluded. There are a million stories out there waiting to be told. If only we allow the storytellers to do the telling”. In 2006 the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), New Delhi, conducted a survey which found that “of the 315 key decision-makers surveyed from 37 Delhi-based (Hindi and English) publications and television channels, almost 90% of decision-makers in the English language print media and 79% in television were...from the ‘upper caste’?”.
We cannot argue that the absence of dalit journalists is the result of a conscious discrimination by the management of a media because there is no evidence that newspapers had caste criteria for recruitment of their personnel. Moreover, the opaqueness in the process of recruitment in media organisations makes it difficult to come to a definite conclusion. But informal factors, like journalists’ networks may influence the recruitment process. In Indian society, human networks mostly function within the formula of caste. The reality of dalit absence in Indian media shows the inattention of managements in the media to the social diversity of the editorial desk. It has been reproducing the social prejudice in the content of the media for the last 60 years.
During the last two decades, coverage of dalit issues in the mainstream Indian media is more than earlier. After 1990, the year of the Ambedkar centenary, dalit movements got more visibility in several states. The other important factors include the emergence of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and human rights activists who were also busy in exposing several atrocities committed against dalits across India.
In Tamil Nadu, the English print media especially Outlook, Frontline, The Hindu and The Indian Express gave more space for dalit issues than the Tamil newspapers and periodicals. It does not mean that the English media have employed more dalits in their editorial departments. The English media operate at the all-India level and they have to exhibit themselves as progressive before the nation. At the same time, the English media was more keen on narrating the violence (as Chomsky said “road crime”) against dalits than questioning the system of caste and state policies on dalits. However, there is no such compulsion for the vernacular media, because the functioning space of vernacular media is like a “village” which always operates within the system of caste. In Tamil Nadu, the space given by the English print media to dalit issues also facilitated the spread of dalit movements across the state. The problem is not only with the inclusion or exclusion of news on dalit issues. How the media represents the issues is a pertinent question.
Many violent incidents against dalits had taken place in post-independence India. For instance, the Keelavenmani incident (42 dalit people burnt alive by the caste Hindus in 1968) was reported in the Dinamani with the heading of “Clashes between Farmers”. This issue was seen by the media as a class issue, but after many years it was redefined by the dalit parties as caste oppression. The media failed to see the violence against dalits from the angle of untouchability or human rights violations. Even after the 1990s, some important dalit issues have been reported in a negative way. As Hugo Gorringe (2006) said, in the Tirunelveli massacre (17 dalits were brutally murdered in a police attack on 23 July 1999), “the media tried to convince the people to believe that the victims of the incident died by drowning in the river and not by the attack of police”. The Khairlanji massacre2 also shows the ugly face of the media towards the dalit issues, in which DNA was the first newspaper to carry the news but that was already a good eight days after the atrocity. Some Hindi language newspapers published the police version of “moral justice”,3 without any hesitation. Anand Teltumbde (2008) writes that “such reporting masked caste realities and ensured that readers had no sympathy for the victims”. It is not overdetermination to come to a conclusion that the exclusion and misrepresentation of dalit issues in the mainstream media is the direct result of the social exclusion of the dalits in the Indian media. Social exclusion is the
denial of equal opportunities imposed by certain groups of society upon others which leads to inability of an individual to participate in the basic political, economic and social functioning of the society (Buvinic et al 2005).
In the Newsrooms
In the United States it was observed that, “There is no doubt that, from the standpoint of social responsibility, achieving a balance of staff in our newsrooms that more accurately reflect the make-up of the communities we serve is the right thing to do” (Benson 2004).
In 1975, the American Society of News Editors (ASNE) found that blacks/other social minorities comprised only 3.95% of the journalistic workforce in America. At its annual conference in 1978, it set a “Year 2000 goal” – by 2000, blacks/others must have proportionate representation in all American newspapers. To accomplish this goal, it was resolved that: (1) newspapers open a diversity department, (2) offer special scholarship to train blacks/other candidates in journalism, (3) organise job fairs to recruit them, and (4) participate in an annual newsroom racial/ethnic census.
The result was stunning: out of 1,446 American newspapers, 950 (66%) decided to abide by ASNE’s resolutions, including all newspapers with a daily circulation of above one lakh (Prasad 2004). The US experiences proved that most of the major publishers recruited from the ethnic minorities in order to maintain news diversity. It is not only the standpoint of social responsibility of the media industry, but also that the publishers felt that in order to sustain themselves in the market, they have to maintain diversity in the newsroom.
The American model of diversity in newsrooms is the best solution for the under-representation of dalits in the Indian media. This may raise a debate among the media owners about quality, availability, etc. The Indian media cannot reject the issue simply by saying dalits are not ready to take the job or they are not competent enough for the “challenging” job. However, the media companies are owned by private players, who have a social responsibility to diversify their newsrooms. Recently, the chairman of the National Commission for Scheduled Castes, P L Punia, while arguing for reservation in the private sector stressed that “private sector depends on the government, nationalised banks and state-owned financial institutions for its survival, and thus, cannot insulate itself from reservation (Viswanathan 2010).
Recruiting people from various social groups is not an easy process because journalism is a profession, so they must be trained for the profession. To accomplish this goal, the media should offer special scholarships to train dalit/other candidates in journalism and organise job fairs to recruit them. This model was more or less adopted by the Asian College of Journalism (ACJ), Chennai, Tamil Nadu.
Asian College Experience
The Media Development Foundation started the ACJ with the aim of training media professionals to meet the future needs of the media industry. The institute offers a one-year postgraduate diploma in four streams in media education, like print journalism, radio, television and new media. From its official website, we came to know that the fee for the course per year is more than Rs 2.5 lakh. In 2005, the ACJ instituted four fellowships for SC/ST students. Under this fellowship, the entire study at ACJ was free in addition to the provision of a modest monthly stipend. It was the first major private journalism college to introduce such a comprehensive fellowship for dalit students. In the first year, three dalit students were admitted in the ACJ. They had successfully completed the programme and among the three, one student joined The Hindu as a reporter, the other as a subeditor. But in the next academic year (2006-07) there were not enough applications for the four scholarships for SCs/STs. This problem remained until 2010. In March 2010 ACJ advertised for its 2010-11 academic year’s admission. The school received very few applications from the SC/ST candidates. So the management of the ACJ decided to take special efforts to fill up the seats for dalit students.
Interested people mobilised applications through email, SMS, personal calls, group meetings, lectures and other informal ways. With this campaign more people came to know about the ACJ and its fellowships. While campaigning in Tamil Nadu, the campaigners immediately were confronted with the question: would they allow us to write the entrance exam in Tamil?
The campaign was quite successful in eliciting 107 applications. In the results, unfortunately most of the candidates were not able to clear the entrance examination. Only three dalit students were selected for the fellowship for the 2010-11 batch.
This experience explains why the dalit students are not willing to apply to the ACJ. First, most of the students do not know about the institute. Even the students who are doing journalism courses (undergraduation or postgraduation) are not aware of the fellowships offered by the ACJ. The second problem is with the medium of education. Dalit students who are willing to make journalism their career come from a vernacular medium background. From this experience the people who campaigned for the cause came to a decision that from the next year onwards the dalit applicants must be given training with a foundation course to be able to take the entrance examination.
Inclusion of dalits in media is not just about seeking reservation in media industries. It is a larger issue because without the representation of people of every section of society, the opinion of the media tends to become partial and biased. In order to make the media content more diversified and socially relevant, the policy of inclusion becomes inevitable. There are two standpoints on admitting dalits into the media industry; one is the moral view that the people who form close to 20% of the country’s population must have their say in the nation’s opinion. From the commercial point of view, if the media rejects the demand of dalit content, it may lose circulation in the future.
1 In Tirunelveli district of Tamil Nadu, Pillamar is a Vellalar caste. In social order it comes next to the brahmin. As per the official category it is a forward caste.
2 On 29 September 2006 Bhotmange’s entire family wife Sureka (40), sons Roshan (21) and Sudir (19) and daughter Priyanka (17) were lynched by a mob of caste Hindus of the village. It was not a simple murder/gang rape, but public humiliation and torture, culminating in the lynching of four lives at the village centre.
3 Language newspapers published news that the village people gave moral punishment because the mother Sureka had a relationship with a man (Siddharth Gajbhiye).
Benson, Neil (2004): Diversity in the Newsroom-Employment of Minority Ethnic Journalists in Newspapers, “A Report by the Training Committee of the Society of Editors”, October.
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– (2001): “[Not] Being There: Dalits and India’s Newspapers”, South Asia, Vol 24 (2): 225-38.
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