Media plays an important role in informing and shaping public opinion around major issues. In his writings, Amartya Sen argues that a democracy is the best system to avoid famines in great part because of its ability to use a free press, and that the Indian experience since independence confirms this. He states that when large-scale starvation threatens, newspapers play an important role in making the facts known and forcing the challenge to be faced. Media, thus, has the ability to impact outcomes through its reportage. This then begs the question: how does the media decide which issues to raise?
The answer commonly veers from picking sensational topics to ideological inclinations of the media houses to covert or overt pressure from stakeholders like the government, businesses, and communities. The demand side—what the readers prefer and want to read—is largely missing in this narrative. Being a competitive and profit-making industry, the demand dynamics play a pivotal role in deciding what gets covered by the media, and what issues get more space than others.
There is a significant and persistent trust deficit between the people and the media in India; As per the Digital News Report, 2021, published by the Reuters Institute, only 38% Indians trust most news, compared to 65% in Finland, 50% in Thailand, 54% in Brazil, and 61% in Kenya. Low trust is usually ascribed to biases in media reporting. This conclusion comes naturally for a country where close to 70% of media revenue comes from advertisements and 30% from reader subscriptions. We, however, show that a part of this low trust is also explained by the disparity in the media coverage of urban and rural conflicts.
Focussing on the English media, using land conflicts involving communities as the focal point, and comparing the occurrence of conflicts vis-à-vis their coverage, we argue that media reporting is significantly linked to reader interest. Reader interest, in turn, is driven by the location of the reader, the intensity of the conflict, and the involvement of a known entity (person, corporation, etc). The argument is not that reporting is not ‘influenced’ or ‘sensationalised’, but instead that there are other, objective reasons as well which play a key role in deciding coverage. This is a crucial finding, helping reinforce faith in the institution of the fourth estate which is critical for a well-functioning democracy, while at the same time highlighting the need for introspection and caution.
We gauge the occurrence of conflicts by studying the 714 ongoing land conflicts involving communities tracked by Land Conflict Watch (2021). We find that conflicts occurring in rural areas account for more than two-thirds of the total. This seems intuitive, since larger conflicts involving communities most likely pertain to issues such as land acquisition, and these are more likely to occur in rural areas than in areas that are already urbanised. However, when we turn our gaze to the location of the conflicts reported in the media, we see the opposite. From our list of 58 land conflicts covered by the media between 2015 and 2019, we find that 39 are located in urban areas. Thus, while rural areas account for 70% of the actual occurrence of land conflicts, the media reports nearly 67% of such conflicts from urban centres.
Figure 1: Comparing the occurrence of conflicts with their media reporting. There exists a disparity between where conflicts actually occur, and which region receives more coverage.
Not only is the frequency of media reporting on urban conflicts greater, but each urban conflict is also covered much more extensively than those in rural areas; this is despite the fact that a much larger number of people are potentially impacted in the latter. We deep-dive into 7 of the 58 conflicts and find that the four rural conflicts in our sample are about 15-20 times as large as the three urban conflicts in terms of the number of people affected, and yet, they garner about 20% less media attention compared to the latter.
This may be happening since the majority of the 40 million English newspaper readers reside in metropolitan centres, whereas the 470 million readers of regional newspapers are largely concentrated in smaller towns and rural areas. For example, The Times of India, Hindustan Times, and The Mumbai Mirror are the three most widely read dailies in Mumbai; however, the most widely read dailies in all of Maharashtra are three regional newspapers, Lokmat, Daily Sakal, and Pudhari. Since most of the readership of the English-language media is centred in and around urban areas, covering issues occurring in close proximity to the readers’ surroundings is of more importance than conflicts that may be much bigger in scale, but unfolding in a distant, rural setting.
We test our framework of reader interest driving coverage by applying it to other platforms and issues. We scrape data from the Twitter handles of nine prominent media houses (such as the Press Trust of India, The Hindu, PIB India, The Quint, among others) for the recent COVID-19 oxygen crisis. During the second wave of the pandemic in India from March to July, 2021, several fault lines such as inadequate provisions of medical-grade oxygen came to light. We find that of all the scraped tweets mentioning ‘oxygen’ during this time, Delhi’s share was about 30%. Considering that Delhi accounts for as little as 1% of India’s population, a 30% share seems inordinately high.
Our study has two main conclusions. First, reader interest plays a key role in shaping coverage. Second, what readers want to consume may or may not be in consonance with reality and with what needs more urgent redressal from a larger, country-wide perspective. It is, thus, a tough balancing act for the media industry—how to stay profitable by giving people what they demand, while simultaneously covering information that people ought to know. For example, by highlighting Delhi’s oxygen shortage, the media exerted its influence and pressure to force a response from policymakers. However, an improvement in Delhi’s oxygen situation may not necessarily have reflected a pan-India improvement of the crisis, which is what the tweet pattern would appear to suggest.
In a sense, the system was let off the hook by the media once the crisis neared resolution in Delhi, even though scrutiny of public health management should have continued until the problem was fully addressed for the entire country. This may have been sub-optimal from a societal perspective. It also serves as a timely wake-up call for policymakers not to rely only on English-media coverage as a means of staying informed about the key issues facing the country, given its urban skew. Strengthening this key pillar of accountability that upholds the fundamentals of democracy is all the more vital in the present age.
Shishir Gupta is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Social and Economic Progress (CSEP); Nandini Agnihotri is a Research Assistant at CSEP and Sikim Chakraborty is a Research Analyst.
The full Working Paper can be accessed here: What Drives Media Reporting? – CSEP.