Western media biases colour South Asia coverage: Need for greater journalistic empathy and objectivity

Despite the myriad challenges faced by Western journalists in covering South Asia, maintaining journalistic integrity is non-negotiable. This entails a rigorous commitment to fact-checking, corroborating information from diverse sources, and challenging ingrained biases.

M A Hossain May 16, 2024
Western media

South Asian nations, bursting with diversity and contradictions, have long been a captivating subject for global journalism. Yet, despite their increasing importance on the world stage, Western media often misses the mark when it comes to accurately portraying these multifaceted and culturally rich countries. This discrepancy in coverage not only reflects a lack of understanding of the region's complexities but also raises concerns about journalistic integrity and political interference.

Recent scandals and exposés have brought into question the motivations of foreign journalists covering South Asia, particularly India and Bangladesh. India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar has pointed out that criticism from the Western press isn't merely due to a lack of information but rather a belief that they are political players in Indian elections. This perception challenges the credibility of foreign media coverage and raises concerns about political neutrality. Western media's visible tilt in Bangladesh's national election seemed to aim at destabilizing the country’s polity, highlighting a trend of Western interference in domestic affairs.

One glaring example of the disparity between foreign and Indian journalism emerged during a panel discussion on BBC's Newsnight, where Amana Begam Ansari, a journalist for The Print, challenged the portrayal of Muslims and minorities facing genocidal threats. Ansari emphasized the importance of data in dispelling misconceptions, highlighting that India has never been safer for minorities. However, her remarks left the program's anchor visibly perplexed, showcasing the gap in understanding between Western and Indian perspectives.

Bridging the gap

India's vibrant democracy, cultural richness, and economic dynamism evoke global interest. However, delving into the complexities of Indian society requires more than surface-level reporting. Western journalists often struggle to understand cultural nuances, traditional subtleties, regional disparities, and the wide span of the country. Instances such as ABC News Australia’s Avani Dias's false claim of being forced to leave India further erode trust between foreign journalists and Indian society, raising questions about journalistic integrity.

Western media sometimes prioritizing narratives with biased coverage that align with cheap popularity or geopolitical agendas. Recent instances of biased reporting, such as The Guardian’s editorial on India’s general election, undermine the work of foreign press in India and hinder a balanced portrayal of the country. Chris Blackburn, an expert on media, wrote an opinion piece in Daily Express, UK about biased and inaccurate coverage regarding India, "One challenge is the tendency to view India through a narrow lens, shaped by preconceived notions or sensationalized narratives. This can lead to oversimplification and distortion of issues, perpetuating stereotypes."

Access and privilege significantly complicate the landscape of media coverage, especially for Western journalists. Their struggle to effectively connect with grassroots communities and fully comprehend the daily realities faced by ordinary South Asians deepens the divide. As a consequence, this gap in understanding frequently leads to a distorted depiction of socio-economic issues. In this skewed portrayal, the voices and experiences of marginalized individuals are often overlooked, exacerbating societal disparities and hindering progress toward more inclusive and accurate representation in the media. It was more evident when the incumbent prime minister in Pakistan was ousted, and his tenure in office was depicted as a severe threat to Western nations.

The situation is not limited to India or Pakistan alone but extends to Bangladesh as well. Western media's 'interference' in Bangladesh's domestic affairs and national elections has been a recurring issue, raising concerns about sovereignty and political meddling. The 2024  national election in Bangladesh witnessed a flurry of biased reporting and sensationalized narratives from Western outlets, reflecting a lack of understanding of the country's political landscape and internal dynamics. Such interference undermines the democratic process and fosters mistrust among the Bangladeshi populace toward foreign media.

Upholding integrity

Despite the myriad challenges faced by Western journalists in covering South Asia, maintaining journalistic integrity is non-negotiable. This entails a rigorous commitment to fact-checking, corroborating information from diverse sources, and challenging inherent biases. Only by adhering to these fundamental principles can journalists hope to offer a portrayal of South Asia that is both comprehensive and unbiased.

Fact-checking serves as the cornerstone of responsible journalism, particularly in a region as complex and dynamic as South Asia. With misinformation and propaganda often rampant, journalists must meticulously verify every piece of information they intend to publish. This not only safeguards the credibility of their reporting but also ensures that readers are presented with accurate and reliable information.

Embracing a multiplicity of perspectives is imperative in capturing the true essence of South Asia. This entails going beyond mainstream narratives and actively seeking out voices from diverse backgrounds, communities, and viewpoints. By amplifying often marginalized perspectives, journalists can offer a more nuanced understanding of the region's socio-political dynamics, thereby enriching the discourse and fostering greater empathy and understanding among audiences.

Challenging biases, both conscious and unconscious, is another critical aspect of responsible journalism. Western journalists must interrogate their preconceived notions and prejudices about South Asia, recognizing that their cultural, social, and political backgrounds may influence their perceptions and interpretations of events. By cultivating a self-awareness of these biases and actively working to counteract them, journalists can strive towards a more equitable and balanced portrayal of the region.

Ultimately, the responsibility lies with Western journalists to transcend the limitations and pitfalls inherent in covering South Asia. By upholding the principles of journalistic integrity, fact-checking, embracing diversity, and challenging biases, they can contribute to a more informed and nuanced understanding of the region on the global stage, fulfilling their crucial role as mediators of truth and knowledge.

Accurately capturing South Asia’s essence requires humility, empathy, and a commitment to uncovering the truth. By addressing biases, challenging preconceptions, and prioritizing factual accuracy, Western media can bridge the gap and offer a more comprehensive understanding of the region’s vibrant landscape while respecting the sovereignty and internal dynamics of each nation.

(The author is a political analyst based in Bangladesh. Views are personal. He can be contacted at writetomahossain@gmail.com)

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