Harping on farmers' suicides

BY Archana Venkat| IN Media Practice | 12/12/2011
Justice Katju slammed the media again, this time for giving so much space to actor Dev Anand's passing. We have a moral responsibility to readers and not a moral obligation,
The Press Council Chariman Justice Katju’s recent salvo has come over the front page coverage of actor Dev Anand’s recent demise. While Dev Anand’s demise may not have technically qualified for front page news, neither does farmer suicides (as was stressed upon by Justice Katju), particularly when there is little or no development in the issue.
Farmer suicides and its poor coverage has become a favourite topic for the PCI chairman to reinforce the message of media’s insensitivity and warped priorities about news. Given the number of times Mr. Katju has mentioned this, either he has not understood why the media is unwilling/ unable to cover this issue or he knows something which the media does not. In either case, it is necessary we take a close look at the issue of farmer suicides.
A quick analysis of P. Sainath’s extensive coverage of farmer suicides in The Hindu reveals that debt is the key reason for these suicides. This debt is fuelled by three primary factors.
  1. Crop failure resulting in farmers borrowing from money lenders for their subsistence.
  2. Illness in the family resulting in loss of farm hands and consequently reduced productivity.
  3. Daughter’s wedding where dowry is an important component.
At some level all these three factors need to be addressed by the government. Considering close to 70% of our economy is engaged in agriculture, it is the government’s job to make available alternate means of subsistence so that farmers are not driven to moneylenders. It is also the government’s job to provide access to quality healthcare for its citizens and ensure that any illness is curable and recovery is speedy. The government also needs to stress on women’s empowerment so that farmers are encouraged to educate their daughters and thus significantly reduce the burden of dowry.
What has the government done on all these aspects that the media can report about? Only two significant steps have been taken – providing farmers with seeds/ crops for free or at subsidized rates; and asking banks to waive farm loans. The impact of both these moves has been amply covered across business and general news media in the past.
Why then should the media cover farmer suicides repeatedly again when there is little development around the issue? How long should they harp on the same issues? Should we dedicate a portion of the newspaper or a segment of air time exclusively for farmer suicides and perhaps run the same stories because we have no new ones to discuss?
While it is understood that media has a moral responsibility towards creating awareness about lesser known yet grave issues, it is largely a private enterprise and must be allowed to function as one, keeping in mind its readers and business prospects. To expect front page news to focus on a particular issue is just short of deciding what other news should go on the front page.
If the PCI has serious intentions to sensitise the media about the key issues facing in the country, it should take the lead in working with the government to provide incentives to the media to publicise such causes as the farmer suicides. For starters the PCI needs to draw up a list of issues that can be considered serious enough for sustained reporting. To ensure that news organisations cover those issues some of the following incentives can be extended to them:
  1. Subsidy on newsprint – The so-called irresponsible (frivolous) section of the newspaper is often responsible for bringing in profits. Advertorials, news on companies and entertainment is what earns revenues from clients, not news on farmer suicides (unfortunately). Should organizations get a subsidy on newsprint, they would be happy to dedicate a page to farmer suicides and if possible hire dedicated correspondents in rural India.
  2. Tax waivers for news organizations that can show an annual coverage of a certain number of hours or inches of space towards critical issues.
  3. Scholarships for journalists from those newspapers to pursue certificate courses and formal education on covering niche issues such as farmer suicides. Most correspondents of foreign media have undergone such courses before extensively covering key issues such as rural affairs, military and politics.
  4. Travel grants for journalists to enable them to cover these critical issues. 
  5. Recognition for the media house based on the quality and quantity of reporting of grave issues.
The current criticism against the media does not take into account one fact – the readers choice. Do urban Indians (or rural ones for that matter) want to read/ watch depressing news all the time? India’s former President APJ Abdul Kalam once recollected how an Israeli newspaper had decided to stop focusing on war [with Palestine] (considered the most critical issue in Israel’s existence then) and chose instead to cover success stories around agriculture, technology, medicine and livelihoods in general. The idea was to give hope to people that amidst all the conflict, there could be happiness. Today Israel is green and at the forefront of biotechnology and computing.
The Indian media is doing this in its own way by balancing soft, positive news and hard, depressing news. In that process, if it chooses to momentarily ignore the depressing news, should it be seen as being ignorant? Is it proven that constantly bombarding the news with negative , depressing pieces sees positive response from the government and changes the victims’ lives for the better?

Moral responsibility and moral obligation are two different things. The Indian media has a moral responsibility to its readers and not a moral obligation. Perhaps it is time the PCI chief realized this.

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