SAJA Works to Raise Profile of South Asia, Journalism Profession

SAJA Works to Raise Profile of South Asia, Journalism Profession

After several years of informal networking sessions and cocktail hours, the Asian American Journalists Association (AAJA) and the South Asian Journalists Association (SAJA) are coming together for the first time at next month’s UNITY conference to co-host a panel on media coverage of civil liberties after Sept. 11 (2001).
AAJA was established in 1981 to give a platform for all Asians, regardless of region and color, and today it has more than 2,000 members.
But “South Asian” took on a new meaning as people of the “Indian sub-continent” — a term referring to the countries of India, Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh — were bound together by a common political landscape, culture and a colonial past. In March 1994, SAJA was formed by Columbia University professor Sreenath Srinivasan, writer M.K. Srinivasan, publisher Dilip Masand and journalist Om Malik. Soon, it had 18 members, and 10 years later, it boasts of a 1,000-plus membership across North America.
It was important to recognize the contributions and issues of a billion brown people, Sreenath Srinivasan says.
“When five people from South Asia would get together, there were things to talk about apart from just forming an association,” he says. While AAJA showed more interest in hosting events for people from East Asian countries, SAJA’s presence became invaluable as issues such as globalization, nuclear missiles, and personalities like spiritual guru Deepak Chopra and Apu from “The Simpsons” started hitting the airwaves.
“But we never broke away from AAJA,” says the current SAJA president and Washington Post education writer S. Mitra Kalita. “Many members of SAJA are members of AAJA, too.”
Adds Sreenath Srinivasan: “We are very aware of our own limitations but we work well with AAJA. We want a seat at the table but we want everyone to be comfortably seated as well.”
In spite of lacking the administrative and fund-raising power of organizations such as the National Association of Black Journalists, SAJA has acquired a reputation among media aficionados through the Internet and provided a much-needed forum for South Asian journalists. With no paid staff, it hosts an annual convention attracting at least 500 participants and presents journalism awards to print, online and broadcast scribes (South Asian or otherwise) on stories about South Asia.
“We are getting mainstream media to care about South Asia and … our own community to focus on our own population,” Kalita says. “It’s not just about Kashmir anymore, but about New York City cab drivers.”
SAJA and AAJA have also worked to encourage students from high schools and universities to enter the profession. While AAJA has been running an annual journalism camp for students, in addition to giving scholarships and internships, SAJA is raising its profile with mentorship programs, awards and scholarships. Members still talk to worried parents in the community about how journalism can be a rewarding career. But with more prolific Asians dotting the print and broadcast landscape, the stigma attached to the profession is gradually diminishing, says Kalita. News anchors, Middle East war correspondents and other reporters on the front pages of national newspapers are helping to boost the image.
According to Sreenath Srinivasan, South Asians benefited from the civil rights and women’s movements when more of them proliferated U.S. newsrooms in the 1990s. “We reaped the awards, too, and we’re grateful for it,” he says.
However, the interest in the profession doesn’t seem to translate into newsroom diversity.
“We still have to work hard,” says Mae Cheng, national president of AAJA and assistant city editor of Newsday. “We’re hitting a brick wall as far as senior management and supervisor positions go.”
“It’s the mindset,” Kalita adds. “If the Wall Street Journal can be filled with Asian bylines, why can’t other papers? Newsroom managers haven’t helped to allow these situations to change.”
—  By Shilpa Banerji



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