Around mid March last year, a group of roughly 40 farmers from Tiruchirappalli in Tamil Nadu began a protest at Delhi’s Jantar Mantar. The protest was part of a larger agitation in the state where farmers had been demanding a waiver of all debts from nationalised banks, a drought-relief package of Rs 40,000 crore, the inter-linking of Tamil Nadu’s rivers and the setting up of a water-management board for the Kaveri.
The farmers decided to come to Delhi to attract the attention of the national media and thus tailored their protests for its consumption. They came up with innovative, even provocative, ways to protest: they held rats and snakes between their teeth, wore a garland of skulls which they claimed belonged to farmers who had committed suicide, threatened to consume their own urine and stripped when they were denied an audience with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In a skit they staged, a farmer was whipped by a man wearing a Modi mask.
The farmers found limited success in getting responsible media coverage. While their methods saw coverage in mainstream media, the issues they had been raising barely got any attention. Given that the protest was not accompanied by digital outreach and social media campaigns, the mainstream media’s coverage formed the primary narrative of the protests. Apart from a few shows of solidarity, the protest in Jantar Mantar in Delhi was largely limited to the farmers.
In September 2017, we studied the manner in which the the English-language Indian press presented the causes and consequences of these and other farmer protests between mid March and mid July. For the study, we used Media Cloud—an open-source news analysis platform developed in collaboration by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab and Harvard University to examine the content of news websites. The tool facilitated several kinds of text analyses, including finding out the most frequently used words in a set of stories and detecting the overall theme of an article. The websites that Media Cloud analysed included legacy newspapers such as the Times of India and The Hindu, broadcast sources such as NDTV and Times Now, websites such as The Wire and Scroll.in, as well as small blogs and sites that carry news about India. The results, available in full on www.mediacloud.org, not only reinforced the notion that the media has been inept in covering rural India, but also revealed disconcerting patterns in the coverage, which presented a highly distorted picture of the protests.
About two months after the Tamil Nadu farmers’ protest, in June, farmers in Madhya Pradesh’s Mandsaur district began a ten-day strike demanding higher prices for their crops and milk as well as a drought-relief package. At the same time, farmers in Maharashtra began a statewide strike seeking minimum support prices at 50 percent over cost of production, a loan waiver, interest-free credit, higher prices for milk, fully subsidised micro-irrigation equipment and a pension scheme.
The distress recorded in three different states around the same time and the resultant protests ensured the media had to cover the crises. When the protests in Mandsaur turned violent and police fired at the protestors, the media coverage peaked in its volume. By the end of June, the coverage had all but petered out. The crisis elicited wide coverage again in late November when farmers from 25 states organised a joint protest in Delhi. Some of their demands remained the same: fair prices for produce and loan waivers.
Throughout the protests, the coverage focussed on the spectacles created by the farmers and the violence, instead of the core reasons behind the protest. Referring to the skull garlands worn by the Tamil Nadu farmers, news organisations branded them as “skull protesters” and used adjectives such as “unique,” “shocking,” “bizarre” and “gory” to describe the protests. India Today’s website created a category called “skull protests” to describe related news stories.
According to Media Cloud data, nearly 94 percent of the 5,072 stories about farmer protests published between March and mid July talked about either the unconventional methods used by the farmers to gain attention or the violence related to the protests. Out of these stories, only 36.5 percent talked about the farmers’ demands for loan waivers, 27 percent mentioned the demand for minimum-support prices and 0.7 percent mentioned the rising cost of production.
Focussing on theatrics makes it hard to sustain consistent news reporting about the issue, and leads to episodic snapshots instead of comprehensive regular reportage. The lack of discussion around the economic conditions and policies that underlie the farmers’ protests created a skewed perception of the problem. Readers were given little context for the farmers’ struggle and were kept uninformed about their own stake in the agrarian crisis.
Our study also revealed that the media covered the protests through an inordinately political lens. A certain degree of coverage of relevant politicians’ responses to the issue is a crucial addition to the overall coverage. However, in the media, political reactions are not only a way to gauge the importance of a story, they also constitute a sub-genre of political news. The focus, once again, moved from the causes of the protests to the political players that stood to gain or lose from them. Nearly 80 percent of the stories made direct mention of ministers or political parties. The most frequently used word in these stories was “minister.”
The news stories we examined also seemed to misunderstand symptoms of underlying problems as the causes of the protest. Much of the reportage focussed on drought and farmer suicides, with a third of the stories examined identifying them as the causes of the protests. The actual causes of the protests, specified by the farmers themselves, such as rising cost of production, credit diversion to corporations, rural unemployment and minimum support prices, was replaced by the familiar narrative of drought and farmer suicides.
This distorted picture of the protests was reflected in discussions on social media as well. The most frequently used words in relation to the farmers’ crisis were “skulls,” “shot” and “dead” (referring to the Mandsaur episode).
Rural India and the agricultural sector have long remained underrepresented in the media. An Al Jazeera feature on coverage of agriculture in Indian media quoted a study by the Centre for Media Studies which analysed six English and Hindi newspapers including Dainik Bhaskar, Dainik Jagran, the Times of India and The Hindu over the course of two months in 2015 and found that the percentage of front-page stories focussing on rural India was zero. The Hindu was an exception; 1.37 percent of its stories were on that topic. Looking at six broadcast news outlets, including DD News, Zee News and NDTV, showed that rural news did not receive more than seven minutes of prime time on any of the surveyed news channels. Most of the staff at these organisations have an urban background and are based in the cities. News, then, is produced by and for city folk. Farming and agriculture are covered only during specific episodes or crises. Such episodic reporting determines how urban India understands rural India.
The obsession with political aspects is in fact common to most coverage of agriculture. We used Media Cloud to look at news reporting across English-language publications in India in 2016. Out of all the stories that used the words “farm,” “agri” and “agro,” only 4.4 percent of all news was about farming or agriculture. The rest of the stories had politics as their main theme. The most commonly used words within these stories were “agriculture,” “minister,” “Congress” and “crops.” The veteran journalist P Sainath has pointed out several reasons for this state of affairs. Speaking at a media seminar in 2017, he pointed out that most Indian newsrooms do not have an agriculture or labour correspondent. The reporters who do write stories on agriculture “primarily work out of Delhi,” he said.
The corporatisation of media has meant that most organisations focus on maximising profits. Rural reporting for many is not considered worth the investment. In the Al Jazeera feature, the television journalist Rajdeep Sardesai explained that media organisations are increasingly reluctant to invest in news reporting. As a result, news organisations are covering more stories that take place closer to their bureaus, rather than those from faraway villages.
News organisations no longer work in isolation from each other and the audience, but function as part of the entire digital media ecosystem—which includes social media websites such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. The strategic use of keywords such as “skull protests” by multiple organisations is an indication of the formulaic reproduction of news content, which compounds the effect of distorted coverage. If this state of affairs continues, 70 percent of India’s population, which lives in rural areas, will not see its concerns and aspirations portrayed appropriately in the English-language media.
Anushka Shah is a researcher at the Center for Civic Media at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Zeenab Aneez is a freelance journalist and researcher based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her research focusses on digital publishing practices, internet audiences, new media journalism and media ecologies, with a special interest in the Indian news industry.