An anatomy of op-ed and editorial pages

These pages of the country's most prominent dailies do not present a promising picture.

ByCherry Agarwal
An anatomy of op-ed and editorial pages
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Earlier Newslaundry surveys have shown that far fewer women secure bylines across broadsheets, at least across top newspapers in India. To gauge the diversity in expertise and gender of those shaping national discussions, this time we looked at the bylines under the editorial and op-ed pages of seven newspapers.

For 36 days (six weeks, excluding Sundays) starting November 12, Newslaundry reviewed op-ed pages of the Delhi editions of four English and three Hindi dailies. Among English newspapers, we looked at The Times of India, The Hindu and Hindustan Times—the top three leading English dailies in terms of circulation, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations (AUC). We also looked at The Indian Express which has considerable impact owing to its readership circles though it doesn’t figure in the AUC’s list.

Among Hindi dailies, we looked at the Delhi editions of Dainik Jagran, Hindustan, and Amar Ujala. Dainik Jagran ranks second in circulation numbers, while Hindustan and Amar Ujala rank third and fourth, respectively.

Cracks in the glass ceiling?

According to our survey, more than a year later (our last data set was from August 2017-October 2017), men continue to dominate the op-ed and editorial pages. Over six weeks, Newslaundry surveyed 555 pieces authored by a total of 579 contributors—some of the editorials and op-eds were co-authored by as many as three individuals. Of the 579 contributors, across the Hindi and English dailies, women made up only 20 per cent*. This roughly translates to one female contributor for every five contributors.

1 out of every 5 op-ed/editorial writers is female.

While the numbers reveal an undeniable gap between male and female voices across newspapers, English broadsheets are doing slightly better than their Hindi counterparts when it comes to gender representation. For Hindi dailies, while women made up 17 per cent* of the contributors, for English dailies, this number was four percentage points higher. Despite outdoing Hindi dailies, women-authored editorials in English dailies have seen a dip since Fall 2017.

In Fall 2017, Newslaundry had reported that women’s contributions across editorial pages of English dailies stood at 34.5 per cent (The Telegraph was included then as well). However, women’s contributions—including articles with at least one female co-author, across op-ed/edit pages in English dailies—now make up only 22.06 per cent (~ 22 per cent)—12.44 percentage points down from 2017.

Who is leading the pack?

Among the seven papers, The Hindu did best and Dainik Jagran the worst in representing women’s voices. The Hindu remains on top despite a 0.57 (~ 1 per cent) percentage point decline in the representation of women’s voices across its op-ed and editorial pages. Of its op-ed/editorial contributors, 27.5 per cent are women. The paper was also the best performer in 2014.

Close at the heels of The Hindu is Amar Ujala with 27.27 (~27) per cent women contributors. This is only 0.23 per cent less than The Hindu.

The Hindustan Times ranked third (24* per cent), followed by Hindustan (21* per cent), TOI (20* per cent), IE (16* per cent) and Jagran (4* per cent).

Jagran’s numbers are particularly dismal because 4 per cent of contributors being women translates to one woman contributor for every 25 contributors.

Percentage of women contributors.

Only 1 out of 25 op-ed/editorial writers at Dainik Jagran is female.

In October last year, women across Indian newsrooms disclosed instances of sexual harassment, assault and power play. The Indian #MeToo movement gained momentum and was sustained on social media. Yet mainstream media has a long way to go when it comes to representing women’s voices.

Who sets the agenda: experts, politicians or journalists?

Over six weeks, we reviewed more than 500 articles to understand which section of people—experts, politicians and journalists—shape national opinions vis-à-vis the op-ed and editorial pages of some of the largest-circulating dailies. “Experts” includes policy professionals, economists, professors, academic researchers, philosophers, and individuals with decades of experience in the field, such as those who have served in the Army, among others.

Out of 555 articles, 366 were authored by experts. Only 67 of these articles were authored by female experts or had at least one female co-author. Articles authored by female experts made up only 12 per cent* of the total editorials and op-eds. Only three out of every 25 articles were written by female experts.

Our survey shows that the second-largest group of opinion-makers is journalists. Journalists—including editors, bureau chiefs and foreign journalists—wrote 26 per cent* of the total editorials and op-eds. Of the 142 articles written by journalists, 27 per cent* were written by women journalists.

Politicians (both current and former) were the third-largest group (the smallest in the three categories), writing 8 per cent* of editorials and op-eds. Only six were written by women politicians—14 per cent* of all articles written by politicians, and only 1 per cent* of the total number of op-eds and editorials run in the seven newspapers.

Paper-wise expertise distribution

In the six weeks that Newslaundry reviewed the editorial and op-ed pages, Dainik Jagran ran the highest number of editorials written by politicians. It was followed by HT, Amar Ujala, IE, Hindu, TOI and Hindustan—in that order.

Percentage of editorials and op-eds written by politicians.

The highest number of expert-authored op-eds and editorials was carried by Express, which also carried the least number of journalist-authored pieces. In the expert-authored category, TOI was second, followed by Hindu, Jagran, Hindustan, HT and Amar Ujala.

Journalists speak

Newslaundry reached out to several senior editors, op-ed writers and journalists to ask them what they thought of these numbers.

Aarti Tikoo Singh, senior assistant editor with The Times of India, says: “India is a young country, as far as literacy goes. Women in the workforce is still quite low and in news business, even lower. Op-ed requires specialised domain knowledge, analysis, writing skills and confidence not only to offer an opinion but to withstand criticism too. It is not as if women don’t have opinions but I think a lot of them find it harder to deal with counter-argument and critique of their positions. But as more women acquire specialised professional training, we will see women contributing more to the public opinion-making.”

Gita Aravamudan, senior journalist and author, agrees to an extent. She says there’s a certain hesitancy among women—irrespective of expertise—to voice their opinions. “This is particularly true of older voices, which have the opinions that matter. They feel the fear of rejections. They are a little more wary.”

Aravamudan says women’s voices are possibly overwhelmed because men are sought out by their male peers, which might not be the case for women. “I don’t think there is any gender discrimination in the sense that people do accept articles written by women. But op-ed pages are largely manned by men. Women are not sought out because there aren’t as many women colleagues of the same stature who would search them out.”  A long-time freelancer, Aravamudan started her career with The Indian Express and is a regular op-ed writer. She has also written several opinion pieces for The Hindu.

Diksha Madhok, The Print’s digital director, says, “There are certain fields which are still male-dominated at the top. It is harder to find female leaders in such fields. In sectors such as finance, tech industry, the VC ecosystem—my options [as an editor] would be limited.” During her time as editor of Quartz India, which focuses on economy and tech, Madhok’s team had women tech reporters but found it hard to find women experts. “They would go to these tech fairs but it would always be manels.”

Gender imbalance in some of the sectors is one of the reasons behind the disparity in the genders of opinion-makers, Madhok adds.

Aarti Tikoo Singh says unequal income is also a major challenge in the workplace. “I do think that women are generally less paid than their male colleagues in Indian newsrooms. I don’t have any proof or any statistical data to substantiate my claim but I sense that it would be broadly true.”

Coomi Kapoor, contributing editor with The Indian Express, describes the glass ceiling as a challenge for women in the newsrooms. She says, “There is a glass ceiling. A lot of very well-qualified women do get left out. The reason for this glass ceiling is one, a boy’s club at the top. And second, sometimes owners are more comfortable dealing with a man than a woman.” She adds, “Considering the competence and talent of some women, it is surprising that they are not in high places.”

Both Aravamudan and Kapoor also recall how in the early 1970s, women would be sent to cover flower shows and beauty contests or were assigned feature stories.

To change things, Aravamudan and Madhok think newsrooms need to make more of an effort to find female voices and newer writing talent. “Newsrooms are making efforts to get women on their op-ed pages and/or opinion pages on their website, but more needs to be done. Journalists are not putting in enough effort to find new names or women,” Madhok says. “One way to change things is to impress upon women the benefits of getting their name out there. If women become more media savvy, if women experts could use social media to reach out to journalists—it would help journalists find newer voices.”

Singh suggests transparency in salary packages as a way forward. “I think salary packages should be transparent and determined by merit. News organisations simply will have to develop far more advanced mechanisms to measure competence and corresponding rewards.”

Of op-ed pages and politicians

What is an op-ed page anyway? Coomi Kapoor calls it an “extension of the edit page, where the latter reflects the views of the paper”. Gita Aravamudan says op-ed pages are meant to “give an eagle’s eye view of issues and is supposed to be by people who are experts”. Aarti Tikoo Singh says it’s “a newspaper’s and society’s collective sense of justice and judgement”, and a platform to “address issues that concern us collectively”.

Does it matter if politicians largely contribute to op-ed pages? Singh says: “I don’t think anyone including politicians should be barred from contributing to the op-ed page, as long as they can write and articulate their arguments and opinions well. Badly written and incoherent opinion pieces are a waste of column space in a newspaper.” She adds, “The eligibility criteria for publishing articles should be applied uniformly.”

Kapoor also doesn’t see why politicians shouldn’t publish their opinions too. “[The] Op-ed page is meant for a variety of people to give their opinions on a variety of issues. I don’t see why politicians should not. If politicians feel strongly, they should have every right to write. If politicians are not good writers but are just being given space because of their name value, then that’s bad. Often, you’ll find strange pieces which have nothing new to addas if their speeches have been put together by their aides. Such people who do not have anything to contribute should be thrown out. But there are a lot of very thought-provoking politicians such as Shashi Tharoor, P Chidambaram and Arun Jaitley who have something to say.”

Aravamudan disagrees. “Politicians have enough place to shout out their views, like on TV. I don’t think they should come and crowd the print media or the web media for that matter. It is the place where ordinary people’s voices should be heard. However, newsrooms need to put in a little effort in exploring newer voices who may be open to talking.”

Note*: Numbers have been rounded off.

Data input credits: Samyak Jain

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