Dr. Christiane Verschooten is associate professor at the Department of Journalism, Hogeschool-Universiteit Brussel, Belgium and a member of the Brussels Center for Journalism Studies.

In this first part of an interview with Dr. Jitha T. J., the then Project Fellow with CCMG, Dr. Verschooten talks about her research on the politics and sociology of the underrepresentation of Dalits in the mainstream Indian media. Excerpts:

JITHA T.J : What are your primary research interests?

CHRISTIANE VERSCHOOTEN: My doctoral research was around the theme ‘Dalits and Media in India’. My primary concern was examining how Dalits are represented in news reports in India. I also looked at the issues of Dalit participation in the work field of journalism and how their issues related to job differs from non-Dalits. That was only a beginning; later on my research interests expanded to critical journalism where I developed interest in looking at issues of how journalism can give a voice to the voiceless marginal communities and also the potential of alternative media in ensuring the representation and participation of those who do not have voice in the mainstream media.

JITHA: Would you like to give an outline of the research design of your doctoral work?

CHRISTIANE: While doing my doctoral research the thrust was on understanding how the mainstream journalists do write about Dalits in English, Hindi and Tamil press. The initial idea was to enumerate the caste status of mainstream journalists and interview Dalit journalists; but had to drop the idea because I was told it is very difficult to find a Dalit among the mainstream journalists. I was also trying to understand the nature of Dalit representation in the press. This is precisely because many of Dalit leaders/activists complain about the way they are projected in the media. And the method I followed was collecting and analyzing newspaper reports on such issues.

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JITHA : Have you done any follow up study after the completion of your doctoral research?

CHRISTIANE : Now I am doing a follow up study where I am interviewing the journalists, both upper castes and Dalits, working in the mainstream or in the alternative media and trying to figure out the reason for the absence of Dalit representation, especially in the mainstream media.

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I conducted a roundtable in Belgium on poverty and critical journalism. The deliberations were around exploring the ways how journalists should and can write about the poor and neglected breaking stereotypical ways. The conference on poverty and critical journalism launched one website for critical journalism.  The idea is to create a platform to exchange ideas. But because of lack of resources and also lack of interest also, it could not take off.

JITHA: How do you frame the issue of underrepresentation of Dalits in the mainstream media of India?

CHRISTIANE: According to the Dalits themselves, they are underrepresented in the mainstream media mostly due to sociological reasons like lack of required educational qualifications or familiarity with English language. They do not talk about any explicit discrimination but they concede to the fact that there are limitations for their integration in the mainstream media. However, my contention is that this issue of underrepresentation of Dalits in the mainstream media is more structurally rooted. The mainstream has a role perception about what the Dalit journalists should do which I would say more linked to alternative media. Their sidelining to the alternative media also leads to a tricky situation where they do not get a platform to raise their issues.

I conducted my study at a period of Bhopal Declaration (12-13 January, 2002) and Dalit leaders often make the complaint that their concerns about issues such as liberalization and privatization are not represented in the mainstream media. From the case studies done on this issue, my perception is that Dalits are represented in the media in a distorted way. The mainstream journalists have a stereotypical mindset in representing Dalits. On the one hand, they are represented as people who are oppressed and have no voice of their own; and on the other hand Dalit leaders are projected as agitators who create problems. It is very difficult to find a mid way.

Chris_Bhopal DeclarationI find problem when they are represented as a group of people who have no voice of their own or to say their agency is denied. Also they are often represented as a group of people who face all sorts of suffering. The only voice you can hear are those coming from Dalit movements and leaders/activists.

Let me give you an example. I conducted my study at a historical juncture when BJP was elected to power at the center in India. That was a time when there were heated debates on issues of secularisms and Hindu nationalism. And the mainstream press, often appeared as if they want Dalits to be a part of these debates and discourses favouring one side or the other. And they were deliberately creating frames for Dalits in such a way that Dalits take the side of secularists.

(To be continued)

Dr. Christiane Verschooten teaches International Journalism and New Media. Her main focus is on South Asia. Her research interests include Dalits and media, alternative journalism, and poverty and critical journalism. 

Dr. Verschooten was in Delhi to present a paper at the international conference on “Contours of Media Governance: Teaching, Disciplinarity, Methodology”, organised by Centre for Culture Media and Governance, Jamia Millia Islamia on February 25-27, 2013.

She can be contacted at chris.verschooten@hubrussel.be

Image Courtesy Image 1: CCMG Image 2: CCMG Image 3: Print screen of the official website on  Critical Journalism (http://www.criticaljournalism.be/index.php?a=program) Image 4: Frontline, February 02-15, 2002. (http://www.hindu.com/fline/fl1903/19030920.htm) The conference, in which Bhopal Declaration was released, is in progress.