Issue 23

How Does the Western Media Portray South Asia?

Shree Bhattacharyya

With the ongoing economic crisis in Sri Lanka, Shree Bhattacharyya does a deep dive into the representation of South Asia by the western media and inspects the neglect, possible biases, and lack of adequate coverage that may be seeping into media attention of South Asia.

A subject that has long been explored is the dichotomy between the western and the eastern countries. In the 21st century, with the merging of different cultures, societies and ideologies, perhaps these differences are being blurred. However, the way the two sides portray each other affects how they think of the other and whether they choose to focus on the differences or not. The portrayal is often driven by what is stated in the news and media. In a study conducted in 2016, scientists were able to manipulate the participants’ perception of how risky a country seemed by differently phrasing news stories. Therefore, it is necessary to explore the media and how information is disseminated, especially if their viewership is worldwide.

One of the paramount situations in the east right now, especially in South Asia, is Sri Lanka’s economic crisis. Over the last two months, it has reached new highs, as food is in short supply, protests are ensuing, and the country is in turmoil. Throughout April, The Guardian has covered the Sri Lanka crisis in over seventeen articles. Out of these, only six have made it to the front page. The New York Times published just six articles regarding the crisis in the last two months, The Washington Post just four and The Times just three. None of the cover page headlines of the latest eight editions of The Economist mention Sri Lanka. These are all western newspapers that cater to an international audience. They express the views of the west and influence the views of the world, and their lack of coverage of a South Asian country’s crisis is striking. These do not represent all western media, nonetheless, they represent the top newspapers that are the most widely read. There are other Asian countries or countries in the Global East that make it to the headline; for example, the Russia-Ukraine conflict often has its own subsection dedicated to it. Of course, there will always be a conflict or crisis that requires or receives more precedence than another, however, it is hard to ignore how matters of importance in South Asia are often neglected in the extensive newspapers of the west.

In 2021, the Indian Institute of Mass Communication published a paper where the writer, Amol Parth, examined articles by The New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, TIME, and The Guardian over the last decade to explore the global media coverage of India. Their analysis uncovered that the words used most in the context of India have been negative, outrageous, or full of contempt. The report discusses that the reason behind this could be that western newspapers do not have a lot of resources dedicated to India. Their arm-chair journalism – that is, journalism without going into the field – has resulted in them simplifying matters for their international audience, and not being able to capture the complexity of the country. In 2017, The New York Times article, ‘In India, Fashion Has Become a Nationalist Cause‘ received a lot of backlash because it claimed that the traditional Indian wear, the Sari, has become a trend imposed by the Bharatiya Janata Party to promote chauvinistic nationalism, after they’d come into power. However, they failed to mention that the Sari is not a sign of Hindutva but is a part of India’s heritage as  a whole.  Yes, BJP is a political party that is staunchly right-wing who promote Hindutva through most mediums, but not through the Sari. When influential western newspapers report partial and erroneous information such as this, it harms the global image of South Asia. 

Another example of partial or biassed information is the Washington Post article in 2014, ‘Bangladesh’s political unrest threatens economic gains, democracy’, where they wrote “Once known for sweatshops and cyclones, Bangladesh has emerged in recent years as a fragile democracy with an expanding economy”. Yes, this statement is partially positive: they have an expanding economy. However, it is the prefix of this sentence that points out the inherent bias of the western media where they have reduced an entire country to ‘sweatshops and cyclones’. One can argue that this is a close reading of just one article. Nonetheless, other analyses have pointed out that Bangladesh has been mostly reported in terms of violent Islamic extremists, disastrous country, and human rights violations in The New York Times and The Washington Post. Most bad news dominates the headlines, as they catch one’s attention, and this image of South Asia could be because of that. However, it is when the rhetoric becomes exclusively negative with barely any positive or hopeful articles to balance that, then the bias in western media becomes apparent. 

Information for the news is borrowed from various sources, and even western newspapers have to sometimes borrow resources from other media channels. India Today, an Indian news channel and magazine, published an exclusive interview with the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov. In the media, an exclusive is of great importance as the channel becomes the first to tell the story, especially in a situation that is intensely tense and critical, such as the Russia-Ukraine war. However, when the information gathered from the interview was re-reported in The New York Times, the information was attributed to “an Indian broadcaster“. No name nor any hyperlink was given. Therefore, it is not just how much or how South Asia is portrayed in western media, it is also the lack of respect that is given to the South Asian media.  

Yes, not every western news article regarding South Asia has biases, not every South Asian crisis or unrest is neglected, and it is not everytime that a major western newspaper “forgets” to credit a South Asian media channel. However, it is a trend that has been observed and continues to be propagated. Therefore, the western newspapers have to expand their coverage, diversify their opinions, credit other resources when required and honour the importance of South Asia. 

Shree Bhattacharyya is a student of English literature and Media Studies at Ashoka University.

Picture Credits: King’s College London

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

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