The media serves as one of the most important institutions in any democracy, shaping public opinion on important issues such as protests, policies, and election candidates. Given its ability to change the way that individuals look at issues and its ability to present people with a platform to express their views, it is crucial that it represents a variety of people and opinions. However, representations on news has come under criticism in recent times, and not without cause.
Over the past couple of years, a number of studies and surveys have been conducted on the representation that news channels offer. They have come to a very simple conclusion – upper-caste men are grossly over-represented while women and lower castes have minimal representation. A study by Network of Women in Media India found that across 28 channels and 11 languages, women made up only 13.7% of the panels in prime time news debates.
Women also made up only 28% of anchors. Oxfam India and News Laundry together conducted a similar study across newspapers, magazines, digital news platforms, television channels, and flagship debate shows on the representation of caste groups in the news. Across all categories, the results showed a gross under-representation of lower-caste individuals. Of the 121 leadership positions surveyed, only five were occupied by other backward classes (OBCs) while 106 were occupied by upper castes.
Three out of every four anchors surveyed was upper caste while there was not a single Dalit, Adivasi or OBC person. Under 5% of articles in English and 10% of those in Hindi were written by people from Dalit or Adivasi communities.
The lack of diversity in the news is alarming and leads to a drop in the overall quality of news. When newsrooms are made up of only a small number of communities, they fail to cover a variety of issues and provide the sorting platform they should be provided to cover a number of issues. For example, the Newslaundry study found that of the 972 cover articles in magazines during the period of the study, only 10 were about caste discrimination.
A lack of representation of diverse castes in the newsroom led to a lack of coverage on these issues. This sort of under-representation alienates minorities and limits trust in the media. Once people feel alienated, it becomes easy for politicians to discredit the media, such as Trump’s ‘Fake News Media’ rhetoric.
The other major issue that arises due to a lack of diversity on news channels is the one-dimensional nature of the opinions on the news. Newsrooms filled with upper-caste males often mean that news stories on lower castes fail to explore the nuances of the issue, but speak in generalizations about the issue. Instead of actually helping inform and educate people, it pushes ancient narratives and stereotypes onto people.
This has become much worse in the media over recent years as channels have become increasingly one-dimensional in their views on issues, often taking a majoritarian stance or backing the government narrative. While diversity might have gone some way in countering that, current news panels form echo chambers that resonate with views that are based on stereotypes and prejudices and lacking in nuance on a number of issues.
In the absence of diversity, media as an institution starts to collapse. Instead of acting as the proverbial fourth pillar of democracy, it becomes limited to the fringes as a mouthpiece for a few privileged individuals. To be able to function effectively, newsrooms must fix their diversity problem.