Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Can rural reporting be “sexy”?

The FMP’s seminar on the subject on January 25 provoked a good deal of discussion on various dimensions of rural reporting and on the merits of the use of the word “sexy” by the organisers to provoke the debate. It was pointed out that the word ‘sexy’ was just a metaphor, a professional jargon or a substitute, to make rural news newsworthy. In another sense, it was a pun intended to mock at journalists who believe rural news does not qualify as news, because it does not appeal to urban readers. Development thinkers and media professionals exchanged notes on the current state of rural reporting.

The Outlook Editor-in-chief Vinod Mehta asked why the Corporate India has not been exposed in the media. The advertisement cake is growing, but many publishers have no advertisement tariff card, as the rates are negotiable. There are more television channels in India than what one would expect during recession. He asked how is India beating the trend.

Covering rural India requires money and many publishers don’t want to spend money in covering rural India. One way is to try and connect rural and urban India. Obviously, there is a connection. Take Naxalism, for example. The Union Home Minister, Chidambaram today is an urban hero. You have to freighten urban readers, in order to write about rural grievances which nurture Naxalism. He said media should not underestimate the ignorance of readers. They should explain, for example, why we can’t have efficient delivery system – the main criticism against social sector spending. Politicians, he believed, have a vested interest in keeping it weak, to sustain patronage.

Mehta’s largely pessimistic tone was, however, challenged by the speakers who followed him. They pointed out that the NREGS has enhanced purchasing power in rural India, which should keep the corporate sector smiling. Therefore, corporate sector cannot argue that rural news is not newsworthy. NREGA has contributed to enhancing minimum wage in some States, pointed out Union Minister, C.P.Joshi. Migration in search of jobs has come down following the success of NREGA, he suggested. We need to compare agricultural production before and after NREGA, he said. People are interested in rural news, and there is a vast potential, he believed.

Aruna Roy questioned about non-productive assets in banks, and why media is not writing about it. Jean Dreze believed there is a huge disconnect between media and people. He recalled that when NREGA was enacted, Parliamentarians simply ignored the sustained media campaign against it, and succumbed to the enormous popular demand in its favour. Even today, he said there is superficial investigation of corruption in NREGS. He cited several instances where the corporate hold on media has been defeated.

Sunita Narain saw a parallel between what is happening in India to what has happened in the U.S. In the U.S., people don’t believe newspapers, which don’t play the role which they are supposed to play. There is lack of discourse in the U.S.media, due to corporate control, she said. The media have to tell the story as it happens. Connection between rural and urban news interests can be made, if the media discover facts, which requires time, money and privilege, she suggested.

The seminar was ably moderated by Vipul Mudgal.
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