Dr. Ramesh Rao's Research Concerning Media Bias in Recent U.S. Reporting of India

It is an important goal to seek to dispel misconceptions and stereotypes concerning India, but in order to do this it is necessary to conduct research verifying exactly what stereotypes are held to be true, and by whom. The next step would be to ascertain how the stereotypes are disseminated. Since the following project will seek to address these questions, with a particular focus on the role of the media in the process, the Infinity Foundation and ECIT have decided to support it.

"Covering India": Media Bias in Recent U.S. Reporting of India

Project Abstract
This project aims at recording why, how, where and if media bias creeps in the reporting of news from and about India by U.S. newspapers. The focus of this study will be the coverage of India-related news by the New York Times and the Washington Post in the past three years (1998-2000). The modules of the focus will be politics, economics, religion and religious/ethnic conflict, military and security related issues (including nuclear arms), personalities, culture and history, and arts and entertainment.

The United States is now home to more than a million Indian-Americans, and there is a heightened awareness both here and in India about how India is described and characterized for American readers/viewers. In this study I will provide a brief account of the reporting of news from India by the U.S. media since 1947, and then focus on the coverage since 1998.

The content analysis of the two newspapers will be based on the modules listed above. Tangentially, answers will be sought to how these newspapers choose their reporters/correspondents; the qualifications/experience sought of such reporters; the special training, if any, provided them; local sources that these correspondents rely upon to understand such a complex and diverse society; and how reports are vetted by editors here and shaped by editorial policies.

This study will systematically observe and record bias, both positive and negative, in the reporting of news from India by two U.S. newspapers, 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 study will present an objective account of news and views presented so that all favorable/unfavorable, substantive/insubstantive, well-researched/poorly researched, balanced/partisan reporting and commentary will be recorded and presented.

The methodology will include a recording of all of the items published in the two newspapers from January 1, 1998 to December 31, 2000. Each item will be read carefully and judged for accuracy, balance, bias, etc. A more specific coding scheme could be one of the outcomes of this exercise. 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". One of the best known works of bias in media coverage is of course Said's book on the American coverage of "Islam" 1. This work will similarly but much more carefully and systematically trace the incidences of bias, mis-reporting, and lack of reporting of events/issues. However, balance will be provided in terms of how the newspapers did report or comment effectively in certain instances. The data will be gathered through a complete content analysis of three years' issues of the New York Times and The Washington Post. Access to both these newspapers is available at Truman State University (where the author teaches) through the Lexis-Nexis data base as well as through its micro-film archives of the two newspapers.

Questionnaires will be sent to the two newspapers to find out how they select their reporters, how they train them, and how long they keep them in India, as well as what kinds of editorial policies shape and guide the reporters on the ground. Interviews of the India correspondents will be conducted through e-mail/written questionnaires.

This project would serve to inform and educate policy analysts, journalists, media watchers, students of journalism, as well as those interested in India studies.

The results of the project will be disseminated via conference papers and journal articles either media related or India studies related: for example, Journal of Asian Studies, and Journal of Communication.

Project Narrative
A. Purpose:
This project aims at recording why, how, where and if media bias creeps in the reporting of news from and about India by U.S. newspapers. 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 have been some effective reporting by Western correspondents like Abe Rosenthal of the New York Times who reported from India during the 1960s, and by Mark Tully of the British Broadcasting Service who covered India for more than two decades. Recently, Francois Gautier of Le Figaro has emerged as a sympathetic observer of the Indian scene. However, there have also been some reporters who have shown an animosity and a disinclination to report objectively about India (For example, Barbara Crossette of the New York Times who reported during the 1980s) 2. It is useful therefore to study if there is a pattern of biased reporting from India, or if the patterns are more mixed. A scholarly inquiry into the nature of reporting by the U.S. media about India is therefore justified at this juncture.

The United States is now home to more than a million Indian-Americans, and there is a heightened awareness both here and in India about how that region is described and characterized for readers of newspapers, viewers of television, and listeners of radio. In this paper/monograph I will provide an account of the reporting of news from India by two newspapers, The New York Times and The Washington Post since 1998 when the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power, the country tested nuclear bombs, and the Indian-American community have begun to emerge as a visible and vocal minority.

A minor focus of the project will be on how these two newspapers choose their reporters and correspondents; what are the qualifications required of such reporters; what kind of training is provided them; what are the constraints under which these reporters function in India; what are the local sources and resources they rely upon to understand such a complex and diverse society; and how reports are vetted by editors here and shaped by editorial policies. I will include in my letters to the editors and to the correspondents questions about their choice of experts, spokespersons, and translators, both here and in India, to comment on matters Indian or help in their understanding of Indian issues.

B. Background: While most journalists pride themselves on objective presentation of news and views, media presentations could be as biased and prejudiced as that of ordinary/untrained observers. The media bias appears not only because individual reporters and commentators as well as the owners and editors of media outlets are biased and/or prejudiced 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 tell us what to think but rather what to think about. For example, in the 1986 elections in the U.S., 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 problem 3.

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. One of the California State Universities keeps a tab, annually, of some of the most important stories that the media misses and speculates on the reasons why.

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 Abroad on http://www.indiastar.com). 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 Washington Post printed Bangarbale's letter but by deliberately inserting a phrase. The phrase, "the Hindu Fundamentalist BJP" 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 biases.

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.

The need to find out how reporters are selected and trained arises from this following example: Uli Schmetzer, is the Chicago Tribune's correspondent in New Delhi 4, and an analysis of one of his reports is provided by Sadanand Dhume, the New Delhi bureau chief of the Far Eastern Economic Review. Dhume's close reading of the report was posted on the South Asia Journalists' Association discussion list. Dhume reported the following errors:

  1. The columnist he refers to is Tavleen Singh, not Tavlin Singh
  2. Sonia Gandhi's daughter's name is Priyanka, not Pryanka
  3. India is not a country where "most political data are rigged," whatever that means in the first place.
  4. It is Uttar Pradesh, and not Utar Pradesh
  5. Uttar Pradesh and Bihar are the Hindi heartland, not the Hindu heartland
  6. The NDA did not win votes by "vicious mudslinging." If anything, its attempt to portray Sonia Gandhi as a foreigner has been a miserable failure outside urban middle class India and the SAJA list. The NDA has won votes by stitching together a large coalition and by projecting Atal Behari Vajpayee as prime minister.
  7. The GDP figures are garbled. Could someone please explain what this means: "Also, the gross domestic product grew 8.4 percent through the year, making the 7 percent growth?rate target for the full fiscal year ending March 2000 probable."
  8. My favorite part: "Vajpayee, in his late 70s, is a poet, a gifted orator and gurulike character who had, until 1997, meandered through Indian politics as a minor figure touting a vision of a revival of Hindu values in a secular state." Could someone please define "gurulike character," and by what measure Vajpayee is called a "minor figure" in Indian politics until 1997?
  9. Bal Thackeray was banned from voting, not from electioneering. The ban was not imposed by the BJP as implied in the article.
  10. The BJP has not released an election manifesto for this election. The NDA has.
  11. The demand for women's reservation in the NDA manifesto is not new as implied.
  12. To the best of my knowledge, the proposed amendment in the NDA manifesto refers only to excluding foreign born Indians from the posts of president, vice?president and prime minister.

What Dhume's "dissection" of the report shows is that Schmetzer is either incompetent or ill-trained or ill-chosen for the post. But the Chicago Tribune is not a national newspaper of record though it is a powerful and influential regional voice. This study will show if the more celebrated and powerful media outlets have better equipped and trained correspondents in India.

D. Objectives: There are a number of objectives to this study, and I list them seriatim.
1. This project, I believe, will be one of the first endeavors to systematically observe and record three years worth of reporting from India by correspondents of top U.S. media. 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 that submitted its report to UNESCO 5. Also, there were a number of studies and analyses of the news media in the 1970s and 1980s. As Gans 6 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 need to examine the journalistic enterprise from outside the news organizations, as well as do a "conceptual and ideological stock-taking". Finally, he says that the last, but "logically 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 U.S. 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 this study.

2. There are more newspaper, television, radio and news agency reporters now being sent to India. I want to find out 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 U.S. as their India correspondent). What are the reasons for doing so? Is it done consistently, in terms of sending only U.S. reporters as their foreign correspondents all over the world or whether it is selective, meaning U.S. reporters only for certain bureaus, and what kinds of training do reporters posted to India get before leaving for India?

3. How do American correspondents manage the language problem? A number of critical reports about the reliance of U.S. reporters on their English media colleagues in India for news and views shows 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?

4. 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?

5. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. are similarly attributed to religion and religious practices.

6. 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? So, the content analysis will include close textual and rhetorical analyses.

7. Another question or problem that will undergird 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?

8. Finally, as noted before, instances of good reporting will be noted and commented upon.

E. Methodology:
The most important and time-consuming part of the work is to trace all news items pertaining to India published in The New York Times and The Washington Post between January 1, 1998 to December 31, 2000. Each news item will be recorded and collated under the various module headings: Politics, religion/religious conflict, military and security issues, culture and history, arts and entertainment, economics, etc.

The next step will be a close reading of each news item/commentary/op-ed piece or editorial, and highlighting the emphases of the report/commentary. Any factual error or obvious bias/slant will be recorded. The item will be cross-checked with one or two newspapers published in India on that particular day (I will be using the on-line archives of Indian newspapers), and record why or how the particular item/analysis was chosen to be presented to the American readers on that day (agenda setting).

Finally, the report will be prepared highlighting the bias or slant or mis-reporting or absence of analysis/reports in the two newspapers as well as highlighting effective and useful coverage of news and views.

The report will be supplemented by the answers provided to the questionnaire submitted to the two newspapers on choice and selection of reporters/correspondents; training imparted to them prior to India posting; how long the reporters are stationed in India , and what editorial policies guide and shape the reporting about India 7.

The absence of an operationalizable definition of "bias" can and will attract criticism. But attempting to quantify bias through such an operationalizable definition is bound to end up on the sands of minutiae. I will go with Gans' recommendation and mine Said's work for observing the work of the correspondents of the two newspapers. The content analysis will be as thorough as the one year time-frame permits, and the analysis will be, very possible, within certain theoretical rubrics that will help "deconstruct" the attitudes and expectations, the prejudices and the biases, as well as the ideologies that motivate or support the dissemination of news and views by the two newspapers.

Answers to these questions will then provide certain options for corrective action. These corrective actions could include "educating" the journalists/correspondents through short-term courses in the religions, philosophies, practices and customs of India.

I don't contemplate doing a readership survey for this study. At this point what I propose to do is extrapolate from the content. If at a later point, I feel there is a need to support certain conclusions, I will prepare and administer a survey of Indian-American readers of the New York Times and the Washington Post. A survey of "American" readers may prove to be both theoretically and physically impractical. It is possible, however, to incorporate material from surveys done by American polling and policy institutes about Americans' views and attitudes about India, and then speculate carefully how media representations may have helped shape those attitudes.

Timeline: If this proposal is accepted I plan to begin work in January 2001, and have a preliminary report by September 1, 2001, and a complete report by December 31st, 2001.


Notes:

1. E.W. Said (1981). Covering Islam: How the media and the experts determine how we see the rest of the world. New York: Pantheon Books
2. S. Gopikrishna (2000) "How the American press misrepresents India", Rediff Special
3. R. Campbell (1998), "Media and culture: An introduction to mass communication", New York: St. Martin's Press
4. U. Schmetzer (30th September, 1999), "A Gandhi India Resists", The Chicago Tribune
5. International Commission for the Study of Communication Problems, Many Voices, One World. New York: Unipub, 1980.
6. H.J. Gans (1983) "News media, news policy, and democracy: Research for the future", Journal of Communication, 33:3, 174-184.
7. For example, Jonah Blank of U.S. News and World Report says that the Washington Post rotates its reporters every two or three years, and thus just as the reporters are acquiring some expertise about the region they are moved away from their posts.