Co-Written by Sanket Nayak and Abhimanyu Hazarika

Recent coverage of events outside the national and financial capitals reopens the debate of improving regional disparities in news  

Illustration: Sanket Nayak

Three natural tragedies have hit eastern parts of India over the last few weeks, each of a major scale. The latest of them being the oilfield blowout, now turned into a raging fire, at Baghjan in Tinsukia district of Assam.  Before that, it was the Amphan super cyclone that hit parts of Odisha and West Bengal, and the ongoing Assam floods.

Mumbai was spared by Cyclone Nisarga, which many in the media termed as Mumbai having ‘dodged a bullet’, among other euphemisms. Tinsukia, however, has been spitting fire and toxic air for over 15 days now. Readers and viewers are not entirely to be blamed if they were not even aware of these disasters when they began, let alone having seen them on their TV or mobile screens.

The neglect of mainstream or legacy media towards covering the east is well-known, and despite the proliferation of new media platforms, the trend has not seen all too significant a change. The disproportionately high coverage in broadcast media that Nisarga, a third of the strength of Amphan, got for hitting the financial capital, suggests that the existing models have a flaw the size of a big red gash.

An examination of the news models to improve this, is in order.

First, a brief look at the magnitude of the eastern region’s disasters. The monsoon floods in Assam floods are an annual affair affecting over a million people each year; displacing them, eroding their lands, and cutting off transport and connectivity. Odisha has had five cyclones in the past eight years, with Phailin and Fani – two of the strongest cyclones that made landfall in the state – alone causing economic loss of over Rs 15,000 crores, with huge damage to crop fields, houses, and infrastructure.

Natural disasters of this scale should automatically mean huge coverage – and they are somewhat highlighted – yet each year, one notices the apathy. For most of the media houses, Assam or Odisha is far, far away from the epicentre of national news. A majority of the headquarters of national broadcast media and online digital news media are in New Delhi/Noida, or Mumbai.  While there are a couple in Chennai and Kolkata, none of the headquarters are in Bihar, Jharkhand, Odisha, Assam etc.

Creating regional offices or relocating headquarters to these States would cost a lot of money. Ruben Banerjee, the editor-in-chief of Outlook magazine, who has previously worked as an Odisha correspondent for India Today, says, “Money is a constraint. If you start an office in a state, who pays for it? Where will the revenue come from? No one is in charity here.” He explains that the reason national media outlets publish more of Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh is that it’s what the consumers want. “While every State deserves to be represented, market considerations often come into play. Bigger States such as Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra therefore often dominate coverage over smaller States such as Odisha and Jharkhand. More sales, better revenue are often the determining factors.”

Former News Editor at Hindustan Times, Mohan Sinha, agrees. Sinha says that a story important for the northeast may not be that important for other ends of the country and hence may not get extensive coverage. This, he adds, has nothing to do with the northeast alone. “Remember, finally you give the reader what he wants. How many people in the northeast would be interested in reading about a flood in, say, Thrissur (Kerala) and vice versa? What happens in Delhi or Mumbai affects a huge swathe of the population, and thereby reflects on TRP/readership.”
Lessons from abroad and other solutions

The British public broadcasting is often hailed as the benchmark in terms of its reach and coverage, but even they had to contend with the criticism of London-centric news coverage. To have a more even coverage of the country, the 2003 Communications Act, which mandates a portion of programming and broadcasting spending be outside the capital’s greater metropolitan region, was passed. Despite the law, a majority of the coverage still had London-centric bias, causing the state-funded BBC to relocate some of its operations to other cities. Channel 4 also relocated many of its operations to outside of London.

The BBC model works as the public pay a license fee towards the running of the organisation. India’s own public broadcaster, Doordarshan, does not have such a luxury. Additionally, the degree of influence the ruling government has on Doordarshan is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future. The current CEO of Prasar Bharti, Shashi Sekhar Vempati has been part of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s 2014 election campaign. Former CEO of Prasar Bharti, Jawahar Sircar had argued that Doordarshan could never be BBC.

But it is too much to expect from Doordarshan when it may as well end up going as per trends in private channels. Basudev Mahapatra, a Bhubaneshwar-based environmental journalist, says, “News business has now become completely aligned towards politics. So the representation of news from States with greater political importance are dominating TV screens or newspapers. Be it north-eastern States or non-Hindi-speaking ones, they do not get anything close to proper representation as they can’t topple central governments or influence major political decisions.” He added that some national channels had more local staffers and reporters earlier, which have now been withdrawn significantly or squeezed to a stringer (part-time correspondent) for each state.
In such a scenario, a policy intervention to link additional grants from the Government, tied to guidelines on reducing regional disparities in coverage could affect positive change. It could be codified across mediums through Press Council diktats, and broadcasters associations’ norms. For example, an independent trust run by industry veterans and eminent civil society members could give grants to media houses actualising regional commitments on par with national ones.

Newsrooms, especially in the editorial and decision-making boards of media houses, lack representation from all States, contributing to the general unevenness in covering all regions of the country. Banerjee, who disagrees with the diversity argument, does not feel that this explains newsrooms’ attitudes. He argues, however, that one way to improve the breadth of coverage of a publication would be by promoting more reporters to editorial positions. He says, “As for editorial leadership roles, reporters becoming editors bring in new perspectives. A reporter has a better sense of the pulse on the ground than a desk person, having spent years in the field.  However, an editor who earlier was on the desk could have better editing and production skills.”
What a democratic country and its citizens should be treated to is well-rounded coverage of all issues. This includes not just disaster coverage but also day-to-day issues specific to a region, ensuring judicious coverage of all parts of the country. Only then can we hope to see an egalitarian round-up of news as far as regional diversity is concerned.

If not, national news would just be regional news of a chosen few cities!

The writers are 2020 graduates of the Asian College of Journalism Email: abhimanyu965@gmail.com


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