Around mid March last year, a group of roughly 40 farmers from Tiruchirappalli in Tamil Nadu began a protest at Delhi’s Jantar Mantar. The protest was part of a larger agitation in the state where farmers had been demanding a waiver of all debts from nationalised banks, a drought-relief package of Rs 40,000 crore, the inter-linking of Tamil Nadu’s rivers and the setting up of a water-management board for the Kaveri.
The farmers decided to come to Delhi to attract the attention of the national media and thus tailored their protests for its consumption. They came up with innovative, even provocative, ways to protest: they held rats and snakes between their teeth, wore a garland of skulls which they claimed belonged to farmers who had committed suicide, threatened to consume their own urine and stripped when they were denied an audience with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In a skit they staged, a farmer was whipped by a man wearing a Modi mask.
The farmers found limited success in getting responsible media coverage. While their methods saw coverage in mainstream media, the issues they had been raising barely got any attention. Given that the protest was not accompanied by digital outreach and social media campaigns, the mainstream media’s coverage formed the primary narrative of the protests. Apart from a few shows of solidarity, the protest in Jantar Mantar in Delhi was largely limited to the farmers.
In September 2017, we studied the manner in which the the English-language Indian press presented the causes and consequences of these and other farmer protests between mid March and mid July. For the study, we used Media Cloud—an open-source news analysis platform developed in collaboration by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab and Harvard University to examine the content of news websites. The tool facilitated several kinds of text analyses, including finding out the most frequently used words in a set of stories and detecting the overall theme of an article. The websites that Media Cloud analysed included legacy newspapers such as the Times of India and The Hindu, broadcast sources such as NDTV and Times Now, websites such as The Wire and Scroll.in, as well as small blogs and sites that carry news about India. The results, available in full on www.mediacloud.org, not only reinforced the notion that the media has been inept in covering rural India, but also revealed disconcerting patterns in the coverage, which presented a highly distorted picture of the protests.
About two months after the Tamil Nadu farmers’ protest, in June, farmers in Madhya Pradesh’s Mandsaur district began a ten-day strike demanding higher prices for their crops and milk as well as a drought-relief package. At the same time, farmers in Maharashtra began a statewide strike seeking minimum support prices at 50 percent over cost of production, a loan waiver, interest-free credit, higher prices for milk, fully subsidised micro-irrigation equipment and a pension scheme.