An Analysis of The New York Times’s Coverage of the Pulwama Attack and its Aftermath: How Headlines Are Used to Mislead Readers, Blame the Victims, and Clean Up After Mass Murder
The New York Times has published (online and/or in print) over two dozen pieces of reportage, analysis, editorial, and opinion on India and Pakistan since the February 14, 2019 attack on an Indian Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) bus in Pulwama district in Kashmir that killed 40 passengers. The attack was carried out by an operative of the Pakistan-based JeM who recorded a video indicating his enmity to Hindus, whom he described as “impure” and “polytheistic” and “cow urine drinkers.”
The prolific coverage is perhaps not surprising given the magnitude of the attack and its death toll, the strong reaction from people and political leaders in India, and the subsequent military actions and counter-actions between India and Pakistan. The general theme of the coverage, in the New York Times and other Western media, has been that of the possibility of conflict between two nuclear-armed nations often seen as rivals, and rivals in particular “over” the question of Kashmir. This coverage was marked by intense attention, such as the Times’s own near-daily focus, as well as inappropriate blunders, such as an ill-timed joke by the Daily Show’s Trevor Noah about impending war that led to an apology from him. The comedic blunder was obvious for its poor taste and seeming lack of understanding; but what was the nature of more serious coverage of the sort done by newspapers with international resources and stellar professional reputations such as the New York Times?
Headlines and Bias: How Are India and Pakistan Depicted?
In this article, I examine this question in relation to a key indicator in news framing practices: the kind of headlines used in the coverage. While questions about objectivity and bias can be addressed by studying a range of indicators including balance in sources quoted in reports, representation of various viewpoints, language, photographic codes, and so on, a preliminary study of news headlines is essential in helping convey a broad understanding of how a newspaper’s record holds up in terms of such questions too. I discuss below the headlines used by the New York Times in over two dozen stories in a 3-week period from February 15 (the day after the attack) until March 8, 2019 (the time of writing). I examine, in particular, the nature of the claims made in the headlines about the key actors and their actions, and comment, in conclusion, about the implications of these findings for media professionals, media educators, and citizens concerned about the abuse of journalistic institutions (and the privileges accorded to journalists by sovereign nations) for military and militaristic agendas.
Table 1. New York Times Headlines on Pulwana Attack and Aftermath (2/15–3/9/2019)
On the face of it, these stories convey some of the major events of the conflict, such as the attack, the Indian response (accusing Pakistan), the Pakistani counter-response (offering to cooperate in an investigation), the Indian airstrike, and the subsequent episode with the capture and release of an Indian Air Force pilot, all of these interspersed with editorials and opinion pieces on war, militarism in media and social media, and the agony of the Kashmiri writer. I must add that while several key developments such as those widely covered in Indian media appear not to have been mentioned at all in the New York Times such as the report of a Pakistani F-16 jet having been shot down in a dogfight by India, such omissions over claims and counterclaims are not the immediate concern of my analysis here. My primary concern is the evidence such as it exists for evaluating the Times’s framing choices in the headlines.
Table 2. Actions Attributed to India and Pakistan in NYT Headlines
India, in the discourse of these headlines, “accuses,” then “threatens,” then “strikes” and “in revenge” at that (although the Indian government called its actions a preemptive strike and not an act of “revenge” at all). Pakistan, at the same time, “offers to investigate,” “vows to move against militants,” rises above the Indian airstrike with “dispassion,” “serves tea” to a pilot beaten (“by mob”) and “frees” him. And of course, wins a dogfight too. The only headline in which India is not said to be acting angrily, interestingly enough, is one in which it is hyphenated with Pakistan (both sides try to “de-escalate”). And almost every headline that indicates aggressive action by Pakistan is matched by hyphenation with India (“deadly shelling”).
It may be fair to say that these headlines paint India as an aggressive (and inept) actor in the conflict in comparison to Pakistani which has fortitude, character, and a fantastic military too.
Headlines about Kashmir
“Kashmir” also figures prominently in several headlines in addition to “India” and “Pakistan.”
Table 3. Headlines with Kashmir as Focus
The use of Kashmir as a point of attention is not uncharacteristic of the New York Times’s general approach to South Asia coverage, with several reports over the years describing India and Pakistan as rivals who have gone to war “over Kashmir.” Reports in the present round of coverage follow this trend, and often indicate that Kashmiri people wish to either join Pakistan (because it is “Muslim-majority”) or become independent. Reports also rarely, if ever, mention the existence of a non-Muslim population in Kashmir, nor the mass displacement and murder of Hindu Kashmiris in the early 1990s by way of context.
While the Times may be entitled to its perception of which Kashmiris it deems the authentic inhabitants of the land (and therefore which inhabitants’ expulsion is deemed un-newsworthy), what is interesting in the present set of reports is the use of “Kashmiri suffering” as the peg on which to hang the only headline that even barely indicates what was essentially the single most devastating event in the recent conflict: the massacre of 40 Indian paramilitary troops not even engaged in any action at that moment (such as tear-gassing stone-throwing protestors, for example), but merely traveling in a bus. Its choice of the phrase “Kashmir suffers” in a headline about what it admits is the “worst attack there in 30 years” seemscalculated to distract attention from the real victims of the violent attack, the several dozen non-Kashmiri Indians, mostly Hindu, who died violently there. This headline, coupled with several other stories and op-eds expressing Kashmiri suffering, suggests an absence of any human costs to the conflict outside the Muslim Kashmiri. Even a report on a subsequent grenade attack in Jammu is suddenly appropriated into the Kashmiri frame with a reference to Jammu and Kashmir in the headline (Jammu, and its Hindu population, is absent in several other occasions where such a mention might have been appropriate).
Other “India” Headlines Beyond Kashmir and Pakistan in this Period
In addition to the two dozen reports and editorials about the attack and the aftermath, the New York Times also published other stories on India in the same period (February 15 to March 8, 2019). Some of these reports, arguably, are not entirely unrelated to the editorial choices made in terms of framing seen in the examples discussed earlier.
Table 4. Other “India” Story Headlines in this Period
While some of the reports seem unconnected to the more immediate news cycle about India, Pakistan or Kashmir, the negative tone of some of the headlines such as those about censorship seem consistent with the editorial predispositions seen so far. And the publication of an article about an issue that has been in play for several months now (and has been intensely contested by Indian journalist Swati Sharma and others), the alleged hate crime measures in India, just two days after the recent terror attack seems somewhat strained in its placement. Contrasted with the Times’s uncritical reports of Pakistan’s “offers” and “vows” to curb militancy, it appears there is an element of judgment being made about India as a counterpoint here, and perhaps a justification being offered for the actions of the suicide bomber who killed 40 people.
Conclusion: The Militarization of Media and How to Survive It
American media scholars have long critiqued the close ties between U.S. media and its “military industrial complex,” with some observers even using the phrase “military entertainment industrial complex” to suggest the complicities between them. Most critiques of media’s capitulation to military-business interests (such as those suggested by the term “militainment”) tend to focus on large scale interventions such as the role played by the New York Times and other U.S. media in the “W.M.D.” scare that preceded the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the sensational video-game-like coverage of the earlier Iraq war by CNN and other TV channels, for example. Such a critique, on the face of it, also seemed to be in play about Indian media the last few weeks, with two op-eds in the Times devoted to that issue alone.
While the criticism of domestic media coverage about war in India (and Pakistan for that matter, though that part does not seem to have been much talked about), is relevant and has its place, what is far more important now is to understand the silences, biases, and seemingly agenda-driven practices of newspapers like the New York Times in their South Asia coverage more critically. Jingoism and calls to wars on false premises such as those done between 9/11 and Iraq are one part of the problem. The other dimension of media militarism that one must be alert about is the systemic silencing of the conversation about certain forms of violence and harm in the media in order to please military and/or business interests. That certainly seems to be the case in the sort of silencing that has happened in the Times’s coverage these past three weeks.
At the very least (and unlike the Washington Post and others), the Times ought to have represented the real act of mass violence that began the present tension with honesty, detachment, and accuracy. By spinning the mass slaughter of 40 Indians by a Hindu-hating suicide bomber into a vague discourse that hopped from India-smearing to outright marketing pleas for arms dealers (the Times tried to argue that the Indian Mig 21 that crashed was defeated by a military that was smaller than the Indian military, though the right frame of comparison ought on reporting a dogfight ought to have been the other plane, which happened to be a US made F-16, and one which Indian authorities say was shot down too — by an old Mig 21 at that), the Times has inadvertently raised some interesting questions indeed about what sort of path supposedly independent journalism is heading towards.
It is important for media educators and media professionals to examine this sort of coverage more closely, and ask their colleagues in journalism about their professional ethics. Is it ethical for a supposedly independent newspaper (that we media educators often announce to our young students as an exemplar institution) to behave like a PR firm for a military junta — in the wake of a horrible bloodbath at that? Media jingoism is just one part of what is wrong with the media in the context of wars, real, imminent, contrived. Media silencing and bias are equally to blame.
I would also urge anti-war activists, and students of non-violence, to pay more attention to the selective and at times devious ways in which compromised media business tend to silence the voices of whole groups of people who have suffered violence, such as the Hindus of Kashmir. The systematic erasure of the pain of all who do not fit a newspaper’s conception of human rights, such as the 40 men, mostly Hindu, who lost their lives last month, and the craven evasion from reporting on the publicly stated and demonstrated Hinduphobic religious bigotry of the perpetrator, all reflect very poorly on the media today.
Finally, I urge people in South Asia and its diaspora to become more critical media consumers, and to also hold their governments to task in ensuring honest and fair news discourses. Too many seemingly educated Indian people take the “brand magic” of newspapers like the New York Times at face value in order to comfort themselves about their own often inaccurate meritocratic beliefs about the world. The supposedly best aren’t always what they seem, and you can study, understand, and see this for yourself. The growing outcry about “fake news” isn’t confined to social media, and “big” media need to be deal with critically and attentively too. This is a moral, civic, and for parents, familial duty that is inescapable in this age of violence too real and media too false. I hope that all of us will pay greater attention to what we read, see, and hear, and try to imagine the real lives and sorrows that are being shut out from our attention by the merchants of destruction and distraction today.