Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Is India facing a flood problem?

Is India currently facing a flood problem? Yes, if we listen to BBC World or visit the BBC's website. In fact, the BBC warns that the northern states and in particular UP and Bihar could be facing epidemics in the wake of severe floods if immediate steps are not taken. However, switch from the BBC to any Indian news channel, or in fact even most of the national print media (English only as I have not checked any regional news media except Prajavani, the Kannada daily), and there is hardly any coverage or mention of the floods. Today's edition of the Prajavani mentions the flood situation in Karnataka (but the New Indian Express's Bangalore Edition does not mention it). The immediate question that arises is India really facing a flood problem?

The larger question is how do channels/newspapers determine what constitutes news? Is it determined by the viewership/readership? The headlines on each of the major Indian English news channels last night when the BBC was airing the flood story as the lead program was Dhoni's elevation as captain of the Twenty20 team.

A couple of days ago I was reading a statement made by a senior bureaucrat in the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting in the context of the proposed legislation giving powers of intervention to the ministry in respect of content in the media. In short, he said that the ministry did not want a whole generation of Indians growing up thinking that "page 3 information" is news. While that by itself does not justify censorship of any form, I am beginning to wonder if the Indian media is losing its way. There is no doubt that there has been a shift in the coverage and the mainstream media (at least the English media both print and electronic) are moving away from serious news coverage and focusing on entertainment. While the Times Group has been the leader heralding this shift others are not far behind. For e.g, one of the news items on the front page of the New Indian Express yesterday was of an Indian character being introduced in Archie comics! About a year ago, I attended a lecture by P. Sainath (now Magsaysay Award Winner) where he attacked the media for completely ignoring the crisis in the agrarian economy. He contrasted about how the media constantly tracked the number of millionaires in India, but completely ignored farmer suicides.

I am not sure what conclusions we can draw from this selective vision of the media-it certainly should not affect the free speech-censorship debate- but its an issue that all of us need to think about.

11 comments:

V.Venkatesan said...

Dear Harish, You are quite right. These are the journalists who are in the forefront resisting the new Broadcast regulation Bill all in the name of freedom of the media. Their answer is they would have their own ombudsman. These are the same journalists who again and again take pride on their channels that they covered Kargil War, tsunami etc. as they were breaking. Floods? I think one reason may be that they did not cause phenomenal damage to warrant TRPs to raise so as to merit constant coverage. I agree the legislation cannot teach them how to determine news. Even the proposed legislation does not intend to do anything of that sort. All the award winning journalists, it appears, are not keen on suffering the hazards of disaster reporting (or even depute someone in their organisations to do so) because there is no commercial aspect to it.

Rajkumar said...

Dear Sir,
I whole heartedly agree with the spirit of your comment.
I disagree with the proposed solution. I believe that we have all forgotten the existence of Dordarshan/AIR, being funded (partly or wholly) from the Tax payer's money(just like the BBC)- it should be doing what the BBC is doing. The I&B minister should concentrate on setting these right, instead of adding to the reams of legislation (remember prasar bharathi act,anyone?).I also think that Mr.Venkatesan's idea of an ombudsman is a sound one (isn't there one already for newspapers?).

Anonymous said...

A couple of days ago I was reading a statement made by a senior bureaucrat in the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting in the context of the proposed legislation giving powers of intervention to the ministry in respect of content in the media. In short, he said that the ministry did not want a whole generation of Indians growing up thinking that "page 3 information" is news.

Isn't this incredibly arrogant? So, the benevolent ministry does not want a whole generation of Indians growing up thinking that "page 3 information" is news! We Indians are so gullible that we must be protected by the I & B ministry. Yes, the same ministry which gave us and continues to give us government propaganda disguised as news. Presumably this is what the ministry wants the new generation to grow up thinking as news?

There is a lesson here, which I suspect our bureaucrats and politicians will not appreciate. Just as total control of the electronic media did not give the government any advantage in the past - people learned to disregard what Doordarshan said and turned to alternative sources for reliable news - I suspect here too, the "Page 3" type of news will go so far but no more. There is a need for "Other than Page 3" news, and people will find and patronise those outlets.

It's my subjective judgment, no doubt, but I think that rather than indulge in stupid legislation, the government would do better to build up Doordarshan as a credible, alternate source of news. It would be great if the government could get Doordarshan to focus on issues which are neglected by the "mainstream" media - floods, yes but also marginalised groups like Dalits and "tribals", marginalised areas like the whole of the North-East and so on. It could start by freeing up Doordarshan but giving it a clear charter as to what it is required to do - namely, act as a source of those news items which the "mainstream" media does not find it worthwhile to cover.

I suspect, though, that this is not going to happen. What we will get is exactly what we get now - a poor imitation of the mainstream media with liberal doses of government propaganda

Harish, just out of curiosity, what exactly was Doordarshan's coverage? You did not mention this at all - perhaps, an intimation of the disdain in which this organization is held? I ask this of you only because I am currently outside India.

Suresh.

How do we know said...

Is the media losing direction? Most Certainly.

Sanjeet said...

This discussion begs the question: does the Indian viewership care about flood coverage? Presumably, most Indian news outlets (print and television) have decided that flood coverage will not attract viewership (if that was not the case, it would be economically foolish to not provide appropriate levels of coverage). Could it be that most Indians (who are not directly affected by the floods) are so fatigued by our political elites' inability to provide basic services that they are no longer appalled by such systematic failures and therefore just don't care about it? If every 3 months, there was a Katarina in the US, I wonder if Americans would suffer from similar fatigue. Globally, this seems to be the case with the Iraq war / occupation. News coverage not only reflects the choices of the news editors but also their assumptions about the choices of their viewership. Are we saying that news editors have gotten it wrong? Do most of their target viewership care more about the composition of the Indian cricket team or the sufferings of the millions in flood-affected areas?

If the editors have gotten it wrong, the market should ultimately get them on the right track. However, if the editors are actually correct, then this is a case of market failure, then I agree with the earlier posting that publicly-funded channels should provide such public-interest coverage. However, to accomplish this, we would need to have a truly independent Doordarshan / AIR, which I don't anticipate anytime soon. Interestingly, if the coverage of BBC is satisfactory and BBC is accessible to most Indians who would be interested in such news, then we could also simply rely on British taxpayers to continue to subsidize such programming (this, of course, assumes that BBC's International coverage does not breakeven and is supported by British taxpayers).

V.Venkatesan said...

There are, in my view, two issues here. One is whether in-house regulation can remedy the situation and improve coverage of news. Some of us have raised the question of Doordarshan's coverage. It is certainly a matter worth looking at.
But what about print medium? What did a leading English newspaper carry on floods that day? A picture of Sonia Gandhi visiting the flood-affected areas, and a report on her visit. Is that sufficient? We still have no accounts from top-ranking - award-seeking journalists - whether print or electronic - directly reporting from the flood affected districts, on how people are surviving, and managing the crisis, how relief materials are reaching or not reaching etc. Clearly, the journalists as well as the newspaper/ channel owners are getting their priorities wrong. The journalists will probably take a chance to report floods, if a media baron announces Rs.1 lakh for best disaster reporting.

Anonymous said...

Dear Venkatesan,

Given the diversity of our country, getting the balance of stories correct is always going to be a struggle. In all the brouhaha about page 3 information, we forget that news coverage in the past was not perfect either. Chandrabhan Prasad, among others, has pointed out how the mainstream media has consistently ignored Dalit issues.

Things change, though. The fact that there is at least *some* rural reporting is in part, due to Sainath's tireless reporting; Dalit issues do get some coverage even though it mostly is about atrocities. Thanks to people like Dilip D'Souza, we do hear about groups like the Pardhis who still bear the stigma of being branded "criminal tribes." This change has happened mainly due to changes within the media and some degree of criticism and not due to any government intervention.

If we are honest with ourselves, most of us would confess to enjoying a little bit of "page 3 information" which is why newspapers find it profitable to report such stuff, even the venerable BBC...The trick is getting the balance right. You are right in that when an event affecting millions is given cursory or no coverage, then something is very wrong. We do need to criticise the coverage and at least ensure better coverage in the future.

Where I guess we disagree is in the belief that government intervention in the form of regulation can do anything. I would argue that such regulation will actually be negative. For one thing, this will just one more layer of bureaucracy (to check that every newspaper/magazine has the "balance" correct). Secondly, you can make the newspapers change their pattern of coverage through regulation but what makes you think the readers will pay any attention? As the experience with Doordarshan shows, people have this habit of "tuning off" coverage that they don't like. I would argue that such negatives overwhelm whatever positives there might be from regulation.

Best regards,

Suresh.

Lord Abhijit Chimpanzee Supreme said...

I do not believe that any regulation is going to change the way the media thinks or works.A greater problem seems to be the nature of public discourse that these media outlets are instigating. National issues are being reduced to the level of 'he said, she said' discussions. It is very rare to find informed opinions or balanced discussion on any issue. Louder voices have consistently been given more airtime than informed ones. I don't think thoughtful writeups in the print have any counterparts on television.

There is also the issue of how exactly these issues are covered.
Should coverage be limited only to death tolls, compensation packages and shocking imagery? IMO, there are several questions that need to be asked and answered. For instance, what kind of disaster management mechanism we have in place for such calamities and why is it failing us. What actions are being taken in the aftermath, how exactly are the survivors being rehabilitated? How was the environment afeected and so on.

I remeber some years back during the Tsunami, the news channels had turned into a counter of sorts with hourly reports updating the number of the dead and after 2-3 weeks coverage was brought down to zero. Even at that time, more importance was given to Chennai and Aceh than the Andaman and Nicobar islands which suffered losses 10 times more. The problem was compounded more by their inaccessebility and geological changes that occured overnight. At bearucratic levels, things were in chaos as several records had been lost in local government offices. Many livelihoods were destroyed and people had to be moved to temporary camps. These poeple are still there. The tsunami's aftermath left a mammoth challenge which the central machinery has not tackled completely. Yet no media outlet seems keen to report on these issues.

If we look at the most important issues today; the US-India nuclear deal, Iran, Agro crisis, the North East, the quality of coverage leaves one wanting. Yet these are the very issues that are going to matter most in the years to come.

Will any kind of regulation improve the situation? I think not. Neither do I believe that change will come from within, or atleast it wont come easily. This may be a good time to turn towards alternate media. Blogs like this one and others are already enriching the public discourse and moving informed discussions outside the academic realm. Alas, their reach is still not wide as NDTV or Aaj Tak. Hopefully that will change.

V.Venkatesan said...

If blogs like this really have a role to play in times like this flood disaster, should we not sponsor (financially) any one to report voluntarily (even if the effort is voluntary, we may need to finance other aspects like travel etc.) and fill the void left by the big media groups just to teach them a lesson? I entirely agree with the author that there are several questions about the disaster, which have gone unaddressed either in the print or electronic media, and which ought to have got the news and views space proportionately, considering the magnitude and devastation. But that was not to be because of the media's skewed priorities.

Anonymous said...

Its a pity:

ONE 'Prince' falls in deep pit and 100s of channels show it for FOUR full days.
However, 1000s DIE and MILIONS get EFFECTED from the floods in India, and NO-ONE shows it to that extent !!

Seems nowadays, Salman's or Sanjay's daily schedule - what they wear, what they eat in jail is far more important
than news that can effect millions of people out there in a positive manner!
Is'nt it so?

- Tanuj Mittal, Delhi

Anonymous said...

Assuming someone is still following this, I have two bits of information:

1. One the BBC reports on "cholera-hit indians facing hunger" [tribal Orissa] while there is complete silence from our beloved national press.

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/.stm

2. While there is all sorts of congratulations for ISRO for the recent "successful" launch, it appears that the launch was not as successful as ISRO's press handouts make it out to be. My suspicions were aroused because in the first orbit-raising maneuver, the engine on board the satellite appeared to have been fired for a very long time (3140 seconds or 52 minutes according to ISRO's press release). So I googled to see if there was any report other than from the national press. Sure enough, I found the following:

http://space.skyrocket.de/index_frame.htm?http://space.skyrocket.de/doc_sdat/insat-4c.htm

Note that the report says that the "reached orbit was lower than planned" but of course, you would not know it from ISRO's press releases which carefully hides this by saying something like "the launch parameters were met."

Mr. Venkatesan, if you are reading this, may I ask if there is any sort of double check on what ISRO puts out? We are accustomed to taking government press releases sceptically, so why is not ISRO subject to the same scepticism? Is ISRO let off the hook because it is a "prestigious" organisation? Or does it indicate more seriously just bad journalism when it comes to reporting science and technology issues? Thoughts more than welcome. I also note that the Indian blogosphere seems to be silent - an indication perhaps of our obsession with politics?

Suresh.