Are foreign journalists ignorant of the true India or is their focus on news that sells?

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Big foreign media houses know that negative or critical journalism sells, so they tend to perceive India through the lens of rape, poverty, or rising Hindu nationalism. This imbalance, exacerbated by India's post-colonial inferiority complex, has led to dissonance of opinion between the truth of India and the international media's image of it.

To what extent are foreign correspondents able to impress upon their editors back home about the significance or otherwise of a local story? For that matter, how much of their perception of India is true to the ground reality as opposed to being based on Lutyens Delhi banter?

Do you ever feel yourself having an opinion that you don’t understand? This happens to me when I read articles about India in foreign news publications. On Twitter, I read and follow Ellen Barry of The New York Times and Annie Gowen of The Washington Post and Stanley Pignal of The Economist and Michael Safi of The Guardian and James Crabtree of The Financial Times. They are all outstanding writers whom I can only dream of emulating. And yet lucidly, I catch myself bristling with a cocktail of indignation and mistrust as I read their words about my country. I imagine how they come to think what they think about my country. For some reason, I imagine them all walking around India with clipboards, scribbling down dissatisfied notes about this bewildering place like a disgruntled real estate agent checking up on an unruly tenant on behalf of a distant landlord.

I find myself judging them and their writing by impossibly high, implausibly stringent standards. Every time I see an article in the international news media about India that focusses on poverty, rape or Hindu nationalism (which, let’s face it, seems like the majority of articles about India), I suddenly feel personally insulted. “Why do they talk about this, but not that? Why do they only focus on them? Why are they always looking for the negatives?” I ask myself, as I retweet them with a sarcastic caption. Of course, as someone who has worked for a mythical “foreign publication”, I know the media business and I know that those words, those headlines, those photos and that agenda are not solely the writer’s. Should they be judged by higher standards to local journalists writing about the same issues?

 

I am glad that foreign correspondents hold India’s feet to the fire. But I think they miss a few things. I don’t think they want to talk about what 25 straight years of democratic, economic growth really mean. I’m not even talking about fuzzy feel-good stories. I’m talking about the subtle — the seemingly mundane.

I find myself feeling a weird nationalism when I read the foreign media writing about my country. I have no idea where it comes from. I am not a nationalist, a religious right-wing zealot or anything of the like. Or so I like to think (you may feel differently after reading this article). In fact, I find myself chastising the Indian news media — particularly our atrocious English TV news channels — for not properly covering our galaxy of social ills and economic challenges. But when I read piercing words written about India by foreigners, I have a gut reaction — a knee-jerk defensiveness. Where on earth does this come from? It’s such hypocrisy. Is it that only my people are allowed to criticise one another? Are tribes so brittle to cold outside judgement? I have lived outside India for longer than I've lived in India and yet when I read a western journalist criticising a Modi government I didn't even vote for, I instinctively feel an urge to respond with caveats and footnotes. I wonder if this happens to people from other developing countries too. I wonder if the dynamic has anything to with a colonial inferiority complex.

 

And yet foreign correspondents are just doing their jobs. They are journalists doing valuable work. They are good human beings who have families. But in the newspaper business, you have to sell stories and to sell stories, you have to sell a narrative. It seems they feel that a narrative of dreariness and outrage is what will sell. In a country of 1.3 billion people, every rape story has the potential to make The New York Times. Every communal scuffle can make The Guardian. I think I’m viscerally affected because my journalism training was totally different. Forbes taught me to look for the positives in a person and their journey. Forbes editors showed me that ordinary readers respond to stories of success and victory in adversity. I've been institutionalised by that outlook and for that I’m glad.

 

To what extent do stories of suffering supersede stories of hope?

The traditional print media, I suspect, operates differently. I can imagine foreign correspondents caught between a rock and a hard place: wanting to highlight the plight of victims and minorities without throwing an entire people under the bus (as their editors — and advertisers — may want). Remember that every article goes through a production line of inputs and adjustments: from the edit meeting at which the idea is pitched, to the final article that reaches you screen, you can bet that an overarching message has been hammered in by the editorial blacksmith. And the text, the pictures, the headline and the hashtag have to fit that. I could be completely wrong and I invite journalists to correct me. I can’t tell you how many times journalists throw their hands up in frustration when the headline, caption and photo for their story reflects a message they didn't intend on sending.

What if the roles were reversed? I like to imagine that. Do those foreign correspondents feel the alien pangs of patriotism when it’s their people under the spotlight? I like to imagine an India in the not-too-distant future, where Indian foreign correspondents in Chicago file weekly stories on tragic gun-crime to blood-thirsty newsrooms in Bombay. Or freelance journalists stream Indian audiences a steady flow of ghastly stories about priests abusing children.

 

The image of India in the West seems to be a dirty, dysfunctional racket. I would love to see this even out. I wonder how Americans would feel if they knew the dominant narrative being beamed to India was that of America collapsing under populist right-wing bigotry, gun crime and degenerate drug crises. What India sees instead is gleaming Manhattan and sci-fi San Francisco. To use a TV analogy, we see America as F.R.I.E.N.D.S and Suits; I hope we see more of The Wire and Breaking Bad. And the same goes for the UK, which is known by most of my relatives across India as “London”. The UK is synonymous with London; a place that is better. Seriously.

I am glad that foreign correspondents hold India’s feet to fire. But I think they miss a few things. I don’t think they want to talk about what 25 straight years of democratic, economic growth really mean. I’m not even talking about fuzzy feel-good stories. I’m talking about the subtle — the seemingly mundane. Every day in India people are buying TVs for the first time. They’re using washing machines and air conditioners at home for the first time. Homes are getting connected to the grid. Uneducated women are taking home modest salaries as cooks and cleaners. A billion people are moving on with their lives. A country is being built from the ground up and it is messy. And we have problems. But there are amazing stories of progress and hope on every street corner. My grandma, who was born under colonial rule, WhatsApps me in America every week. Perhaps foreign readers prefer to read about rape and poverty. Perhaps growing inequality makes for better copy than growing incomes. But my grandma is awesome. Write about my grandma.

 

I’m curious as to what extent foreign correspondents have a “responsibility” to shape the narrative around the country they're based in? How much should they fight their editors to cover some issues but not others? Do they develop an affinity for their host countries? Should they at all? And should it be any different to local journalists: to what extent do stories of suffering supersede stories of hope?

The work that foreign journalists do is invaluable and I salute them for it. I just hope they know that their words shape how the world views my country. As Indians, we chest-thump when the foreign media writes a positive story about us and call conspiracy when the same publication calls us out our many shortcomings. Their words carry the weight of perceived judgment, whether they like it or not and, sadly for them, we will be hanging on to that inferiority complex for a while longer.

*An earlier version of this piece made wrong mention of the number of years since the 1991 reforms. The arithmetic error, since corrected, is regretted.

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