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South Asians and the Media--Discussed at Town Hall at Emory

March 2007
South Asians and the Media--Discussed at Town Hall at Emory

Slugs, NAT sounds, voice-overs, on camera: these words are probably jargon in layman's terms but they form the thrust of a journalist's vocabulary. Atlanta is known for its thriving arts and a vibrant media enviroment, and with local icons including Fox 5's Suchita Vadlamani and CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta, the South Asian signature has already been imprinted on our local media.

On Saturday, February 17th, a panel discussion was held at the Micheal C. Carlos Museum at Emory University on South Asians and the Media. Subtitled "A Town Hall for the Atlanta Community," it was organized by South Asian Journalists Association (SAJA) and Emory University's Department of South Asian Studies. The objective was to encourage discussion about how the ethnic and mainstream press covers South Asians here as well as how it covers the region of South Asia, and what the community can do to help journalists tell better stories about these.

Dr. Deepika Bahri, director of the Asian Studies Program at Emory welcomed and introduced the moderator, Sreenath Sreenivasan, Dean of Students at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. Sreenivasan started by offering a brief overview of SAJA and the role it has played in networking and nurturing South Asian journalists. He then introduced each member of the panel. Talking about the first panelist, Rena Golden, he observed that it was quite telling that the head of CNN International was a lady born in Bihar. In her introductory remarks Golden stressed CNN's emphasis on diversity. Naming a couple of South Asian Guest Producers in the audience, she conveyed that South Asians are increasingly the decision makers at various levels of media.

Next on the panel was correspondent for Pakistan News, Hamid Khan, who said he was inspired towards journalism due to the problems faced by the Pakistani community after 9/11. Khan felt "there is frustration amongst our youth which has led to depression ? and the media should elaborate on the positive aspects of the Islamic community."

Staff reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Moni Basu, currently on her 6th tour to Iraq, narrated her experiences of covering the war from a local perspective. She feels that "in Atlanta, international news has declined and people in the print business have had to reinvent themselves with the print vs. digital and investigative/watchdog journalism vs. quick bite info." Talking about how South Asia might be covered by regional papers, she said, "We cannot expect a paper like the AJC to pick up and go to India to cover stories. What we can do is tell a story of the subcontinent through the people living here in Atlanta."

Khabar Magazine's Editor-in-Chief, Parthiv N. Parekh wondered if the popular media images reflected the fact that, broadly speaking, this is a very successful immigrant community. "There is probably not a person in this room who is not aware of the U.S. Census Bureau statistics that place Indian Americans on the top echelons of income and education. But the question is, ‘Does the average American know that? Or does he still think of us as another struggling immigrant community?" According to Parekh, what often gets more play in the local news are stories of South Asian convenience store clerks being shot at.

The next panelist, Ram Ramgopal, senior editor at CNN International who has also been involved with CNN-IBN, CNN's India division, talked about how there currently is a remarkably robust media environment in the region. "There are 42 news channels! While the United States has the Wall Street Journal, there are at least six publications providing business and financial news. According to Ramgopal, besides the sizeable new generation of home-grown journalists, the media there are fast recruiting Indian Americans to offer a better global perspective.

The final panelist, the director of Emory's Journalism Program, Sheila Tefft, has had a twenty-year association with India which started when she was posted in New Delhi by the Christian Science Monitor. Thefft observed that thanks to the growing significance of the region, Westerners are now seeing it as the complex and multi-dimensional region that it is, as opposed to Third World stereotypes that used to dominate at one time. She also commented about the gradually decreasing gap between the West and the region, so that they no longer appear to be entirely different worlds. Locally, she shared her enthusiasm about the dedication and quality of her South Asian students in the journalism program.

The town hall meeting was then opened up for questions from the audience. Questions came in all sorts of shapes and forms. Asked why the media fails to highlight India's achievements and its glorious heritage, Rena Golden responded that it is not the media's job to present history lessons on nations. Parekh similarly cautioned against expecting the media to be a PR and marketing voice for any country. Golden offered, though, that one can always pitch these stories to the right medium. "The Food network promotes Indian spices, Indian fashion is talked about in European markets?to an extent, it is audience driven."

Responding to a question about technology's impact on global stories, Golden

said "Technology has made it affordable to cover the world. Lighter suitcases, digital voice recorders, improved coverages and multi-purpose phones [make it easier to report].

In her concluding remarks Golden emphasized the significance of journalism in our community by saying, "We will become better stakeholders if we let our children venture into politics and journalism," instead of clinging to the traditional medical and law degrees only."

Sreenivasan reminded the audience that we have power in media to the extent we engage with it. He stressed the importance of feedback. He advocated sending Thank You notes to acknowledge and appreciate favorable stories, as well as to appreciate South Asians in the mainstream media." To illustrate, he wondered how many had actually called or written to Emory to appreciate the Indian art exhibit that was at the time running at the same venue; or as another example, had anyone written to Fox 5 to appreciate Suchita Vadlamani or to CNN to applaud Dr Sanjay Gupta.

- Archith Seshadhari & Ravi Ponangi


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