How the Indian News Covered the 2017 Farmer Protests: A Quantitative Study
Anushka Shah (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and Zeenab Aneez
Between March to July earlier this year, India saw an eruption of farmer protests in the state of Delhi, districts of Maharashtra and in Mandsaur, Madhya Pradesh. The protests were widespread in geography as well as in the political reactions they elicited, and soon came to be a national issue that briefly received significant attention from English and local language media.
The following study explores aspects of this coverage and the manner in which the farmers and causes and consequences of the farm crisis were presented in the English-language Indian press for the time duration of the protests, starting from mid-March when the Tamil Nadu Farmers began their strike, to mid July 2017.
Media Cloud, an open-source platform developed by the MIT Media Lab in collaboration with the Berkman Klein Centre at Harvard University, was used for the analysis of this study. Media Cloud uses a database of over 650+ English language news websites in India - the collection includes legacy newspapers such as the Times of India and The Hindu, broadcast sources such as NDTV and Times Now, digital-native websites like The Wire and Scroll.in as well small blogs and websites that carry news about India.
Media Cloud works both as a data collection and content analysis platform. It collects content from news sources that have a digital presence via RSS or ‘Rich Site Summary’ feeds on a regular basis, saving them to it’s internal database. This database can be queried using various search terms, news sources or source collections, and time spans. The system further performs a ‘web crawl’ or a process of exploring hyperlinks embedded within the articles to discover any related content (the crawl is performed with 15 iterations to ensure all content relevant to search is discovered over the web). The platform includes various features of text and link analysis such as overall word frequency, automatic theme detection, and network mapping.
Coverage of the agrarian crisis by the English-language press
Veteran journalists and researchers have expressed the concern that rural India and the agricultural sector is underrepresented in Indian media. An Al Jazeera feature on Indian media quoted a small, but recent study by the Centre for Media Studies which analyzed six English and Hindi newspapers including Dainik Bhaskar, Dainik Jagran, The Times of India and The Hindu for the course of two months in 2015 and found that the percentage of front page stories focusing on rural India was zero with the exception of 1.37% of stories by The Hindu in the second month. Looking at six broadcast news outlets including DD News, Zee News and NDTV showed that that rural news did not receive more than 7 minutes of primetime on any of the surveyed news channels.
“Our entire focus is on metropolitan India, what happens in Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore, Chennai - that makes the headlines. It’s almost as if we think viewers are not interested in rural India. So our entire hierarchy of news has very little space for rural India,” says journalist Rajdeep Sardesai, also featured in the article.
Media Cloud was used to investigate if the above trend is reflected in its database. On investigating the share of stories related to farming or agriculture (the search terms used were farm*, agri*, and agro) within this English-language Indian news collection in the year 2016, it was found that only 4.4% of all news stories were about topics relating to farming or agriculture.
Giving a talk at a media seminar earlier in 2017, veteran journalist P. Sainath, pointed out that agriculture reporting “centers on the Agriculture Ministry and the budget allocation given to this sector, and the reporter primarily works out of Delhi,”. He attributes this in part to the absence of an agriculture or labour correspondent in mainstream newsrooms.
In running a computer-generated automatic detection of key themes within this farming/ agro coverage, it was found found that matters relating to ‘food’ and ‘politics’ were almost equally represented within the sample.
Further investigation using Media Cloud’s Topic Mapper tool to take a closer look at this collection of stories for a six month duration (June to December 2016), it was found that among the most frequently used words were ‘agriculture’, ‘minister’, ‘congress’ and ‘crops’.
The term ‘agriculture’ is most often used in a political context and ‘crops’ have been spoken about primarily in relation to the GMO debate. While these subjects do relate to farming and agriculture, they also pertain to news that originated in the country’s political and scientific centres, rather than its villages where the effects of these developments are most impactful.
As in the case of the farmer’s protests, a spike in coverage is perhaps in relation to specific episodes or crises that mark the farm sector, rather than regular and routine coverage of the various social and economic aspects of farming and agriculture. As a result, the nature of the coverage during such episodic reporting often determines then how urban Indian readership understands rural India.
Coverage of the protests from March to July 2017
Although media coverage that started in March petered out by early April, attention was further revived by late April and increased to ia much greater intensity in early June as a result of the protests in Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. Media coverage peaked following the violence and subsequent police firing in Mandsaur. During the end of June, the farmer protests were largely overshadowed by the spate of cow-related violence erupting in various parts of the country.
Weekly frequencies of certain keywords during the course of the protests show that between March and April, the focus began with the Neduvasal protest and the Cauvery issue. However, by May, the attention shifted to drought and suicide with a large amount of coverage focusing on political reactions to the protests. By the third week of May, issues of drought and suicide took a back seat to that of loan waivers.
Part 1: A large portion of the coverage focused on the spectacle and on violence, rather than structural causes that brought the farmers to Delhi
Though completely non-violent and staged with permission from the State, the farmers protest in Tamil Nadu gave journalists much to write about: the protest involved mock funerals and skits, an ‘angapradakshinam’ or a ritual of rolling on the floor, nudity when denied audience with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, rats, snakes and consumption of urine.
The farmers, as one journalist points out, are aware that the protest has to be tailored for media consumption and used a Whatsapp group to let the media know of their demonstrations in advance. In an interview with the Hindustan Times, one of the leaders of the protest explained that the rationale behind their unconventional methods was to shed light on the Centre’s insensitivity towards their community. The farmers’ use of unconventional tactics succeeded in capturing a media space where 'offbeat’ news sells.
News organisations were quick to brand the Tamil Nadu farmers as ‘skull protesters’ and used adjectives such as ‘unique’, ‘shocking,' ‘bizarre’ and ‘ghory’ to describe them. One web-native news site also categorized stories related to the farmers’ protests under ‘skull protests’.
In an interview with a reporter from a leading print newspaper who covered the protests from the ground, the use of such terms is strategic; “Once the reader is onto a certain keyword - say 'skull protests' - we can then use that keyword to lead them to stories that talk about the issues surrounding it - this is what we did and I think this was not necessarily a bad thing. At the end of the day, if the reader is going to look for ’skull protests’ they should be able to find articles that provide context”. The strategic use of keywords like ‘skull protests’ points to how textual content is often influenced by social media trends and search engine optimization.
Media Cloud data showed that nearly 94% of stories from the sample of 5072, had mentions and descriptions of the unconventional methods used by the farmers to gain attention or on the violence related to the protests. This is compared to 36.5% of stories that talked about the farmers’ demands for loan waiver, 27% about low Minimum Support Price (MSP), and an even lower number of stories that mentioned rising input costs (0.7%) or land reform (0.4%).
Though it is hard to say for sure that the protest would have been ignored if not for these theatrics and violence (in the case of Mandsaur), the approach certainly succeeded in garnering media attention. Initial spikes in intensity of coverage typically corresponded either to a spectacle created by the farmers or visit from an important political leader. The second wave of coverage that occurred between June 1 and June 10, was centered on the protests in Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh, and peaked following the fatal police firing on five farmers in Mandsaur, Madhya Pradesh.