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May 11, 1999


SAJA helps US media look beyond sacred cows and religious strife

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Sailaja Sastry in New York

When the Taliban's ambassador to the United Nations, Abdul Hakeem Mujahid, addressed the January meeting of the South Asian Journalists Association in New York, he did a couple of unusual things. He spoke at a restaurant with a bar and answered plenty of questions from women in the audience.

Those are not the only barriers that SAJA has helped to break. Founded in 1994, SAJA's mission is to foster a network of journalists of South Asian origin working in North America and facilitate more informed media coverage of South Asia.

Despite its lofty goals, SAJA remains a fairly unstructured organisation whose national and even international influence can be attributed to its Web presence. That Web presence is largely possible through the efforts of Sreenath Sreenivasan, associate professor of professional practice and director of the part-time programme at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York.

"We had no resources, and unlike other organisations we decided to be very informal," Sreenivasan said. "We didn't even have money for a 33 cent stamp. That is not how we operate. So we rely on the Internet to get the word out."

The group's Web site (, launched in February 1995, features a newsroom stylebook, a job bank and a report of past events, including that recent meeting with the Taliban ambassador.

SAJA's e-mail discussion list, which is open to international and non-journalist participation, boasts of several hundred members. "SAJA has survived through e-mail," Sreenivasan said.

Though it survived and built a national presence through e-mail, SAJA got its start in New York City. While South Asians were -- and continue to be -- members of the Asian American Journalists Association, several factors sparked the formation of a separate South Asian association.

"In this country, when you say 'Asia', you don't mean South Asia. You mean China, Japan, Vietnam, Korea," Sreenivasan said. After a small group of South Asian journalists realised it was difficult to get larger organisations to be more aware of the needs and interests of South Asians, they decided to set up their own shop. The group got its start when the professor and three friends -- Dilip Massand (now at India Abroad), M K Srinivasan (of Masala magazine) and O P Malik (now a reporter at Forbes Digital Media) hatched plans over a dinner back in February 1994. An informal gathering the following month attracted 18 journalists.

Raju Narisetti (extreme right), with Krishnan
Anantharaman of the WSJ (center)  and Alok Jha of Smart Money The organisation that had the motto -- "We are an excuse to get together for a drink" -- has since blossomed into a membership of more than 500, but remains fairly unstructured. And for many members, the lack of hierarchy is a definite plus. "The good thing about SAJA is there's no real concept of membership," says Raju Narisetti, assistant news editor at The Wall Street Journal. "There are no dues, no attendance requirements, which is kind of nice because it allows you to participate in the events you want."

While many of the monthly meetings, which feature speakers and are open to the public, are of special interest to journalists, SAJA aims to extend its reach to media outlets and the general public.

Journalists of South Asian origin working in North America often face ignorance in the newsroom and outside. SAJA's goal is to combat that ignorance through a two-pronged approach: educate the mainstream media about South Asian issues and reach out to South Asian consumers of the media.

"South Asia is really undercovered in comparison to other parts of the world. No one tends to think of South Asia except in terms of crises," Sreenivasan noted. He said the biggest journalism awards -- the Pulitzers in the press and the Columbia-du Ponts in television -- have been given to South Asia stories such as Indira Gandhi's assassination and the Bangladesh war of independence.

((from left) Jyothi Thottam of Unicef, Deepti
Hajela of AP, Seema Nayyar of Newsweek, Krishnan Anantharaman of The
Wall  Street Journal, Peter Bhatia of The Oregonian, Sreenath
Sreenivasan of Columbia U, Narayan Keshavan of News-India Times, Savita
Iyer of Fixed Income Daily and Rekha Balu of Crain's Chicago Business. "India tends to bubble up on the radar screen for the disaster du jour," agreed Peter Bhatia, executive editor of The Oregonian. What SAJA does is help force coverage beyond images of sacred cows and religious strife. "It's a wonderfully rich, diverse place - the world's largest democracy -- that's had a huge impact on American culture."

Bhatia is the senior-most South Asian journalist working in a mainstream newspaper in the United States.

Through its annual awards, SAJA seeks to honour coverage of South Asia as well as stories by South Asian journalists on a variety of subjects.

But one thing SAJA does not do is press the media to provide only positive coverage of South Asian spelling bee winners and successful doctors. "If you want more coverage, you have to be willing to accept the good and the bad," Sreenivasan said.

Toward this end, SAJA seeks to educate South Asian newspaper readers and television viewers about the media -- and about how to make their coverage complaints known to the media.

When the March issue of Vanity Fair magazine ran controversial pictures of actor Mike Myers posing as a Hindu deity, SAJA intervened in the debate, but not to take a stand. Instead of condemning the photos, they were scanned onto the SAJA site, allowing members and the public to make an informed opinion.

The controversy brought SAJA world attention and the photographer issued a statement apologising for the pictures, which was also published on the site. The number of visitors increased 900 per cent for a few days as media outlets around the world covered the storm.

Ravina Khosla, a producer for The Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition, who found her job through the SAJA job bank, said the Vanity Fair episode showed how influential SAJA has become. "It was pretty impressive that the photographer made an apology," Khosla said. "That in itself is an example of how as a unit SAJA can influence the representation of South Asians in the mainstream media."

The Wall Street Journal's Narisetti said SAJA plays a particular role for journalists educated in South Asia. "A lot of SAJA members are people like me who studied most of their lives in India," he said. "You are coming to the US and you're telling people that you can write and speak to readers in English, which isn't your mother tongue." SAJA is especially useful to these members, Narisetti said, as a networking resource that enables journalists new to North America to make contacts within the field.

SAJA also works with students, helping them with the job hunt and career advice. In fact, the group is in the process of raising funds for a journalism scholarship.

Peter Bhatia "We as South Asian journalists need SAJA urgently," says Suleman Din, a Toronto-based journalism student from Pakistan. "After all, we are journalists, what profession could beg for connections more than this one?"

"It's good to see desis finally cracking into the media," he adds. "In a sense, this group provides the chance to see what other peanut-butter folk are doing, and gives inspiration to continue pursuing your own goals."

"Journalism is alive and thriving, many of us know. We also know that the mindset is still rigidly stuck in the doctor-lawyer-accountant mode. A friend recently came up to me and asked, 'So you're still going after that journalism thing?' as if it were a hobby."

"To the timid notebook-and-recorder-wallah, this can be depressing," Din continues. "It doesn't help that there are very few desis also in the field. But with SAJA, there is a like-mindedness and zeal for news that is refreshing. We all share a passion for journalism. This group is my haven."

There is, many members noted, some room for improvement. Bhatia wishes SAJA had more of a national focus, and that is something SAJA is striving for. There are busy Washington and San Francisco chapters, and new ones are being set up in Los Angeles, Toronto, Boston and Texas.

Narisetti believes the organisation's fluidity is a double-edged sword. While the flexibility has certainly contributed to its growth, SAJA may need more structure as it grows. But both Narisetti and Bhatia praised Sreenivasan's role in organising SAJA and keeping it alive.

One day, a visitor walked into the professor's office at Columbia University and told him that SAJA "headquarters" was "pathetic". "I'm very proud of how pathetic it is because it tells us that we're not a big corporate entity," Sreenivasan said, noting that the organisation has managed to bypass the hierarchy and dissent that often mar South Asian associations in North America. "The biggest surprise is that after five years there is only one SAJA," he said.

Sailaja Sastry is in a Ph D programme at Columbia University

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