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Why just fiddle at the edges?

Pointing out flaws is important, but so is examining what newspapers systematically leave out, writes Sumana Ramanan.

mumbai Updated: Sep 05, 2010 00:14 IST
Sumana Ramanan

In my nearly two-year stint as HT-Mumbai’s Readers’ Editor, almost all the letters I’ve received have engaged with something that has appeared in the newspaper. But that, you might say, is exactly what a letter-to-the-editor is supposed to do. Why state the obvious?

Because when you think about it, there’s actually a lot to say about what does not appear. By confining our discussion to what does, we significantly limit the parameters of debate.

It’s not that readers have never expressed their opinions about what failed to get in. For instance, I did receive a letter from a reader who found HT’s coverage of B.R. Ambedkar’s death anniversary on December 6 meagre. Another reader wrote to me saying that HT’s package on International Women’s Day on March 8 was niggardly.

I appreciated their critiques, but even they were more about specific events or occasions than about deeper, often unarticulated assumptions and processes that systematically shape coverage.

One underlying dynamic, one that invites attention on specific occasions, is class. For example, just a fortnight ago, I responded to a reader who found it jarring that HT kept appending ‘Xavier’s’ to ‘girl’ while describing Antara Telang, an 18-year-old who lost her leg when a branch fell on it.

The reader said we would never have mentioned the college had it not possessed St Xavier’ College’s cachet. The newspaper’s deputy editor contended that he had used the label to give the girl an identity.

Whatever the motivation, this is a debate that fiddles at the edges. For, as I had pointed out at the end of my previous column, most English newspapers would probably not cover so extensively a similar accident had it happened to a girl in a slum.

What’s more, because a lot of news comes to reporters through their social networks, most English newspapers would probably not even hear of such incidents. Thus, bias, conscious and sub-conscious, kicks in strongly well before anything appears in print.

I’m not aware of a systematic study of class bias in the Indian media. But a recent book presents a forceful analysis of systematic gender bias.

Missing: Half the Story, edited by Kalpana Sharma, argues, among other things, that gender biases show up not merely in the coverage of so-called “women’s” issues or sexual crimes (although the book also has an excellent essay about this); such bias is all-pervasive because it underpins the very way in which most newsrooms today define “business”, “politics” and “work.”

For example, because newspapers, like the larger milieu to which they belong, do not count what a woman does at home as “work”, true and proper, they largely ignore it. Similarly, they don’t see struggles outside the party system as “politics”, so they do not consistently write about women engaged in such activity. In a conservative society, where most women are confined to the home, this bias makes a huge proportion of the population invisible, the book contends.

Whether it is women or the socially disadvantaged, there are surely intelligent ways of writing about the drama and challenges in their lives. Do you agree? Do you have any ideas for HT’s reporters? Do write in.