What Mayawati's Case Tells Us About Diversity In Our Newsrooms
And a call out for mentors/mentees in #4 of the Indian Journalism Project.
Could Mayawati be the most misperceived politician in India? For every news point involving the former Uttar Pradesh chief minister, it seems there is a punchline to a joke that is dismissive of her. These jokes are mostly (but not always) about her looks, her wardrobe, her manner, her speech...in short, about everything and anything other than her record of work.
I was aware of these jokes for years before I even became a journalist, and they have continued in the years after. The only difference after I began work was that the joke-tellers were also journalists.
One might say to that, so what, there's a big difference between jokes and journalism.
That’s true. But ask yourself:
Are jokes indicative of an attitude or a bias that might unconsciously affects a person's reporting?
Are jokes used to dismiss something without taking it seriously?
How many other politicians receive the same treatment?
What do these jokes or attitude say about the joke-tellers and their audience?
I'm writing this piece in the first person because I am part of the system that didn't take offence to these jokes and attitudes. Sure, we found them distasteful, but we didn't think much beyond that. It was only years later that I realised that this was probably because my fellow journalists and I were mostly from the same privileged background, and we couldn't see past our own biases and conditioning.
It’s not just about being privileged either: when you are not part of a community, even your empathy and curiosity are not enough to be aware of certain perspectives.
I am neither a woman nor a Dalit. Nor am I a native of a Hindi-speaking state. On the other hand, when Deve Gowda, the former Prime Minister and Chief Minister of Karnataka was made fun of for 'sleeping' in parliament, I felt the burn of anger1. I did not appreciate his ‘yokelisation’. This is because I, like Gowda, identify myself as a Kannadiga.
Mayawati's case is particularly instructive because she was (and continues to be) the subject of several systemic biases in journalism. Some of these biases would not have been a problem in properly diverse newsrooms.
A more woman-centric newsroom with women in positions of power might have spotted and called out misogynistic reporting about Mayawati. Examples: reducing her to 'mother' and 'sister' stereotypes, focusing on her looks and wardrobe, failing to report correctly when she was sexually harassed and beaten up.
A more caste-diverse newsrooms with people from historically underprivileged castes in positions of power might have been aware of anti-Dalit and anti-Bahujan narratives. Examples: usage of casteist slurs while referring to her, blindness to her attempts to overturn structural casteism.
A newsroom staffed with more language-diverse people might have called out reporting that focused on her English, speech and accent.
A newsroom with more people from smaller cities might have spotted narratives that were harsher on her compared to more-sophisticated politicians.
Finally, there is the class divide as well. Journalists from a similar economic background to Mayawati’s might have corrected any slant by a journalist from a more privileged class background.
I'm not saying that the media should be soft on Mayawati. She is a four-time chief minister of India's most populous and politically important state. She was once (and could be again) a potential prime ministerial candidate. She has also been accused of several times, specifically, of mismanagement and corruption. She has been accused of favouring her own sub-caste, the Jatavs.
Properly diverse newsrooms would have spent more time reporting deeply on her failures (and achievements), rather than on non-important matters. They would have scrutinised her while at the same time according her the dignity due to any human being.
What stories have we lost because we in the media were too focused on the wrong things?
Data related to newsroom diversity isn’t easily available. It is only in the past few years that we’ve had reports on gender and caste inequality. A report by Newslaundry, UN Women and Hyatt titled, Gender Inequality in Indian Media 2021, looked at the state of print, television, and digital media in English and Hindi. Among other things, it discovered that:
One in five panelists on prime-time English news is a woman. Half the debates feature ‘manels’.
One in ten panelists on prime-time Hindi news is a woman.
In newspapers, women author only one in every four articles.
An earlier report on gender inequality, published in 2019, revealed that women aren’t well represented in positions of leadership. For example, in newspapers, less than five percent of newsroom leadership positions were occupied by women.
What about caste?
A report from 2019, released by Newslaundry and Oxfam India, and focusing on English and Hindi media revealed that:
106 positions of leadership out of 121 were occupied by journalists from the ‘upper castes’.
There were no Dalit, Adivasi or OBC anchors of prime-time TV news debates.
Only about five percent of all articles in English newspapers were written by Dalits and Adivasis.
Only 10 out of 972 articles featuring on the cover pages of magazines that were studied were about issues related to caste.
To my knowledge, there isn’t a comparable report on diversity of religion, sexuality, language, region, class, able-ness and other areas of division in Indian newsrooms.
Akshi Chawla, an independent researcher who publishes WomenLead and who co-authored the 2021 gender study says things have improved slightly. She cites the example of an abusive entry under Mayawati’s name in a crowdsourced online dictionary. The entry led to protests. “I’m glad that the entry invoked outrage. Otherwise a few years earlier, it would have been normalised”, she said.
In some newsrooms and by some reporters today, the reporting on Mayawati is better. Many of the overt biases are gone. This isn't because newsrooms are more diverse. Perhaps it’s because people in editorial positions of power are more sensitised. More likely, it is because there are several ‘whistleblowers’ of overt caste bias on public platforms such as Twitter.
There's no telling how many subtle, structural biases remain. These can only be rooted out by a newsroom where all inputs are equally important.
When I told Akshi about my own feelings relating to how Deve Gowda is portrayed in the media as compared to Mayawati, she said this:
“I think this is why it is important to have a diverse set of people. The depiction of both Mayawati and Deve Gowda is not just distasteful - there is also a caste-gender and regional bias involved. We are able to identify the bias better based on our own sensitivities and locations, and a diversity of people in the newsroom will ensure we can be more mindful of all kinds of biases, not just the ones that are more obvious to each of us.”
To sum up, why is diversity important? It is necessary for at least the following reasons:
It deepens coverage of issues.
It can help avoid mistakes.
It results in better accuracy.
It ensures important issues are not missed.
It challenges power structures.
It breaks the status quo.
It lessens discrimination.
It fulfils journalism’s mission.
It might also make for better business.
It is also important to define diversity in detail. To my mind, newsrooms need to introduce at least five types of diversity:
Diversity among reporters, editors and producers.
Diversity in newsroom leadership.
Diversity of sources and experts who are quoted and interviewed.
Diversity of people who are featured in the news.
Diversity of themes that news organisations report on.
Only when we head towards diversity in all five areas, will our journalism serve all people equally. Till then, newsrooms will remain staffed by, and focused on the needs of a small population (who are anyway over-served) and ignore the larger population.
As part of the Indian Journalism Project, we are matching mentors and mentees in a structured mentorship program. If you are interested in mentoring a journalist, or if you are interested in being mentored, do fill up this short four-question survey.
The Indian Journalism Project is a 100-day effort by BOOM and Media Buddhi starting on World Press Freedom Day (3rd May) and ending on India’s Independence Day (15th August). Do subscribe and share with your friends!
For decades, Gowda’s brief performance as Prime Minister was dismissed or unexplored, until the publication in 2021 of the excellent Furrows in a Field: The Unexplored Life of Deve Gowda by Sugata Srinivasaraju.