Foreign Reporting Can Bust Election Year Myths

By Joe Grimm

EAST LANSING, Mich.—A New York Times reporter delivered potent examples in October of why having U.S. journalists stationed overseas is important. He did so by discussing two popular myths about workers in India, where he was born and which he now covers.

Vikas Bajaj at Michigan State UniversityVikas Bajaj writes about economic and business issues. On a visit to Michigan State University, where he earned his journalism degree in 1998, he said India is not a country filled with workers ready to seize jobs from Americans nor does it have an education system superior to America’s.

While there are kernels of truth in perceiving otherwise, they are largely untrue, he said. American’s global ranking in education and outsourcing have been cited in the presidential campaign, and Bajaj hopes to bring light to the debate.

He said India is more like the United States than is often portrayed — and more different.

Quality of education in India, Bajaj said, is wildly inconsistent. The brightest students from India have a chance at top schools, and many complete their education at U.S. universities, but they are extreme exceptions, he said. Most Indian schoolchildren are taught by rote memorization in large classrooms by teachers neither as skilled nor committed as their American counterparts.

Bajaj’s early school years were spent in Texas. After Michigan State, he had internships at the Chronicle of Higher Education and The Dallas Morning News, which then hired him full time.

Sentiment among Indians that schools are lagging behind is far stronger than the similar feeling in America, and evidence supports that, he said. Indian families value education, but many have lost confidence in public education and pay high prices, in relation to their income, for private educations that are not much better. Some families spend a lot of money on tutors.

“Why do the schools not produce better trained students?” Bajaj said. “About 25 percent of Indian teachers don’t show up for work. A lot of schools don’t have separate toilets for girls. A lot of boys stop going to school at age 14 so they can work.”

Schools’ shortcomings undercut the myth that many American jobs can be outsourced to India. From what Bajaj sees in India, he calls the issue “a drop in the bucket.”

When he compares the number of outsourced jobs to the size of the U.S. and Indian economies, the argument appears blown out of proportion. Still, he said, a large proportion of Indians are locked into low-paying jobs with no way out. With 90 percent of India’s 800 million people under age 25, the link between weak education and underemployment will hold people back.

“One of the lessons I’ve learned spending 3-1/2 years in India,” Bajaj said, “is that change cannot be measured in increments of months and years. It must be measured in decades and longer. This has sped up, and a lot has changed. But a lot still remains. The fact that 90 percent of India’s market is still facilitated by mom and pop markets tells you India has a long way to go.”

Today, Walmart wants to open stores across India, threatening small mom and pop operations. Young Indians crave name-brand merchandise at cheap prices, but older Indians see this as an American invasion that threatens their economy, Baja said.

He said this has become a wedge issue as divisive as abortion is in the United States. The debate over big box stores in India, covered from an American perspective during an election year, shows how Indians and Americans are alike and why international reporting matters.

Joe Grimm, a consultant and adjunct faculty member of the Freedom Forum Diversity Institute, recruited for the Detroit Free Press, Knight Ridder and Gannett from 1990 until 2008. He now teaches at the Michigan State University School of Journalism. He has run the JobsPage journalism careers site at www.jobspage.com since 1996. Questions about careers? E-mail Joe for an answer.

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