News Watch Quarterly
A project of the Center for Integration and Improvement of Journalism at
San Francisco State University (http://newswatch.sfsu.edu)
South Asians: The Forgotten Minority
by Sreenath Sreenivasan
"Mother Teresa lived
in Asia?" asked the incredulous voice on the other
end of the telephone line. "I thought she lived in India."
These are interesting days at the South Asian Journalists Association in
New York. We are busy with our annual journalism awards program and, as
its administrator, I get to see a wide range of stories about South Asia
and South Asian Americans. I am also in touch with editors and contest
coordinators in newsrooms across the country.
The question about Mother Teresa came from a news coordinator for a major
metropolitan daily on the East Coast. Since she was not sure what kinds of
stories on South Asia might have run in her newspaper, she was looking for
suggestions. When I mentioned the coverage of the missionary's funeral,
she reminded me how little most Americans know--dare I say care--about
South Asia, starting with the fact that it is part of Asia.
I know where to put the blame: the overburdened shoulders of the media.
Complaining about the U.S. media's coverage of foreign regions is nothing
new, and it is easy to find a paucity of stories about almost any area of
the world. But the inadequate coverage of South Asia and its emigres to
the U.S. is particularly remiss. For the media, "Asia" too often means
East Asia and Southeast Asia, while South Asia--with its nuclear
ambitions, growing economic ties to the West and a billion-plus
population--is relatively ignored.
"There's still a fundamental ignorance of what South Asia is, and who South
Asians are," says Peter Bhatia, executive editor of the Portland Oregonian,
whose father was born in India.
Let me state exactly what South Asia is: the countries of the Indian
subcontinent. The biggest of these are India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri
Lanka. The others are Nepal, Bhutan and the Maldives.
Media coverage of foreign countries, and their immigrants to the United
States, is based largely upon American foreign policy and military
involvement in those countries. Hence, coverage of Asia is focused on
Japan, the Koreas, China, Vietnam, Cambodia--those countries where the
United States has been a clear ally or foe, or where U.S. diplomacy has
By contrast, South Asia has existed on the periphery of American foreign
Other factors that give East Asia more ink and air time include decades of
close trade relations, and the proximity of the Pacific Rim, which makes it
a more strategic partner than the Indian subcontinent.
A prime example of the narrow definition of Asia is the current "Asian
economic crisis." In fact, the press has focused its attention almost
exclusively on East and Southeast Asia, ignoring the economic
situation--good or bad--west of Thailand.
That television is terrible when it comes to covering South Asia is no
surprise. But the way the major networks have stayed clear of the region is
egregious. It is obvious that if Mother Teresa had not died the same week
as a certain British princess, we would still be waiting for the
unprecedented sight of Brokaw, Jennings and Rather reporting live from
"I do try to put stories about South Asia in our world news roundups," says
Indira Somani, a producer for WJLA-TV in Washington, "But this market is
unusual." In previous jobs in three other markets--South Bend, IN,
Springfield, IL, and Norfolk, VA, Somani says news directors were just not
interested in the region.
Two areas where coverage of South Asia has improved of late are the
business press, which knows its audience is interested in emerging markets,
and some radio news programs, which appear to have increased their
reportage of the region. The very biggest U.S. newspapers have always
maintained a presence in South Asia and have sent top correspondents to
those posts, as have the newsmagazines. But those reporters spend their
time scrambling from one cyclone to another, one riot to another--in such a
wide, confusing and diverse region--that it is often difficult to get
beyond the obvious stories.
While the coverage of South Asia remains spotty at best, South Asian
immigrants in the United States are nearly ignored altogether.
When asked about coverage of South Asians, several newspaper editors
surveyed first responded with thoughts about India, instead of examples of
how their papers portrayed South Asian immigrants in their own communities.
Since much of the impressions about South Asian immigrants come from
Hollywood's portrayals of cab drivers, newsstand owners, convenience store
operators, doctors and engineers, the media's failure to find other voices
in the community perpetuates these stereotypes.
One newspaper that tried to break the mold is The Star-Ledger in Newark,
N.J. Because the circulation area it covers has a higher population of
South Asians than most other parts of the country, it embarked last year
a five-part series examining the state of India after 50 years of
independence. Unlike most newspapers that rely on wire reports, The
Star-Ledger sent a reporter and a photographer to India. The series also
included New Jersey's connections to South Asia, like a story about
high-tech workers in Bangalore, India's Silicon Valley, who had trained in
New Jersey. The circulation department targeted Indian immigrant
neighborhoods to increase circulation.
"Since we've done the series, we've been besieged by callers saying, it's
the 50th anniversary of Israel," says Fran Dauth, a Star-Ledger managing
editor. "But it's not the same as India, because we have stories in the
paper every day about these other places."
The relative invisibility of South Asians in the U.S. media is rooted in
American history. It was Chinese-Americans and Japanese-Americans who
served as the spokespeople of the Asian-American movement during the civil
rights period of the 1960s, defining the face and voice of the growing
minority. The U.S. definition of Asia as limited to the East and Southeast
was later widely accepted as university education programs were framed, and
political and community projects were organized.
While Indians immigrated to the U.S. as early as the 19th century, the
majority arrived after 1965 for educational and economic opportunities,
admittedly for less painful reasons than those of Southeast Asian refugees.
"South Asians aren't seen as having been victimized in the way other
cultures have been," notes Bhatia.
Another reason why South Asians are the forgotten minority may be due to
the way they have assimilated into mainstream America. Thanks to the legacy
of colonial rule in the subcontinent, most immigrants arrive with at least
a working knowledge of English and Western ways, making their transition
But South Asian Americans are not completely exempt from blame for their
current lack of visibility. Many still see themselves as belonging more to
the motherland than to their American communities. South Asians that
provide financial support to universities tend to earmark their funds for
studies specifically about the subcontinent, rather than for Asian American
studies. And, in South Asian communities throughout the country,
naturalization and voter registration rates tend to be lower than for other
Although South Asians have been labeled Asians by the U.S. Census since
1979, they belong to a category, not a social group. Asian American Studies
programs gloss over South Asia while Chinese Americans in California
challenge whether South Asians ought to be eligible for minority business
set-asides for Asian Americans. Even newsroom diversity consultants define
Asian American hires as those from East Asia, rather than including South
Asians in the mix.
The reason an association of South Asian journalists was formed is simple.
Four years ago, too many of us felt like outsiders when mixing with members
of the very active and very visible Asian American Journalists Association.
While AAJA and the South Asian Journalists Association (SAJA) have come
closer together over the past year, the fact remains there is still a
notion that South Asians are somehow separate.
So why aren't South Asians present at the Asian American party? Because of
something as simple as differences in physical appearance, suggests Rajini
Srikanth, co-editor of the forthcoming compendium, " A Part, Yet Apart:
South Asians in Asian America" (Temple University Press, 1998).
"It's the one issue people are very reluctant to speak of," says Srikanth,
an adjunct professor at Tufts University. But dealing with it, she says,
"is fundamental to understanding what's happening in Asian America today."
Is there hope for the future? I believe there is. While we are not looking
for a quantifiable increase in reporting about South Asia and South Asian
Americans, we are looking for better, more accurate coverage.
As more and more South Asians reach positions of editorial decision-making,
they will have opportunities to influence how stories are covered. Closer
cooperation between AAJA and SAJA will help focus attention on common
goals. And the constantly increasing population of South Asians will force
the press to train its multicultural sights, at least
occasionally, on this particular group of people of color.
* When writing about issues that affect Asian Americans, try to include a
quote from a person of South Asian origin as well.
* Good starting points for getting an insight into South Asian communities
are the professional associations, local merchants groups, political action
committees, local houses of prayer and South Asia Studies departments at
* South Asia consists of seven countries, not just India, and the largest
migration to the U.S. is from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Certain
immigrants of Indian descent from Guyana and Trinidad are considered South
Asian as well. South Asians practice a wide array of religions including
Hinduism, Islam, Sikhism and Christianity.
* Contact the South Asian Journalists Association in New York to find
experts or information about South Asia or South Asians in the United
States. The website address: www.saja.org. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org, or
call (212) 854-5979
Sreenath Sreenivasan is a professor of journalism at Columbia University in
New York, co-founder of the South Asian Journalists Association, and a
member of the Asian American Journalists Association.