Mar 132013

Google News

25th February headlines and story links via Google News – India Edition

Google News is my landing page for news and opinion, and has been for the best part of the last decade. It acts as an aggregator of news from local, regional, national and global sources, and provides it to the user in an easy to read format. Google News, in its own words, has this to say about its offering :

In the last ten years, Google News has grown to 72 editions in 30 languages, and now draws from more than 50,000 news sources. The technology also powers Google’s news search. Together, they connect 1 billion unique users a week to news content.

Google uses a number of parameters to decide which news ends up on the landing page. These include number of stories (volume) on a given topic; number of words; importance of a news organisation/agency – all these are par for the course – obviously an international paper like New York Times filing a story will rank higher than a local newspaper in Dhule putting out the same story. But, what is also important is the weightage given to audience feedback. Which stories do we click on, which do we choose.

What struck me when I saw the list of news articles in the Google News India landing page, was the absence of certain stories.

a) The drought in Maharashtra – one of the worst droughts in the State, 16 districts impacted. Unprecedented migration from impacted areas to cities. Many places are water starved. It is almost as if no one cares. Not news agencies, newspapers or newsreaders. A human tragedy, that is compounded by the lack of awareness.

b) Bhandara Rapes – three sisters between the ages of 6 and 11 were lured away with the promise of food. Raped. Murdered. And, their bodies dumped in a well. What is striking is that much of the news on this crime is acquired from foreign news agencies, most newspapers neither have reporters in the area, nor the resources to send reporters there. Needless to say, the story has died. It is as though poor children in rural India do not matter.

c) Canning Violence – Canning is a little village in West Bengal that has been devastated by violence. A 100 people descend on a locality and destroy everything, and there isn’t a peep about it. You don’t know if it is gang violence, communal violence, an alien invasion – you know nothing about this event. News channels that gave the protests in Delhi and the violence at Azad Maidanl in Mumbai blanket coverage – are conspicous by their silence

d) Shahbagh Protests – next door in Bangladesh, young men and women are protesting to bring war criminals to book. They are also calling for the banning of the far right Jamaat Party that was, allegedly, complicit in the war crimes. While bloggers and individuals have covered the news on social media, there has been little coverage in the Main Stream Media. Indian news channels who sent their reporters to Libya and Egypt, are nowhere to be seen.

As far as news is concerned, there are media centers – Mumbai and Delhi – Cricket and Bollywood, Sex & Sleaze, the West and what it finds interesting – and media peripheries – the poor and hungry, the marginalised and dispossessed, the Rest of India, the Rest of the world. There are people and events that matter, and there are people and events that don’t.

And, you really cannot blame news channels and news agencies – readers have shown no interest in these stories. In a world of 24 hour news, instant updates, images and words flashed around the world in an instant – it is very likely that certain incidents will never be considered newsworthy by either the news companies or audiences. At the same time, there will be those which are flogged to death. There are topics that are ‘glamorous” – for example terrorism or the threat of terrorism is newsworthy. Thousands of acres of rainforest are destroyed and millions of minutes of airtime is consumed discussing this topic. On the other hand, the impact due to climate change on the most marginal communities, and the most vulnerable demographics – women, children, elderly – is relegated to more niche media. There are illnesses like ‘bird flu‘ that are attractive and take up a disproportionate percentage of news discussions, newspaper coverage and reader mindspace, while deaths due to malnutrition is ignored. Audiences tend to look for the more sensational. Also the more frightening the news, the more likely are people to watch.

What can be done ? Well, there is no magic wand to change audience attitudes. But as networked citizens and media professionals, maybe the solution is to keep talking about issues not present in the mainstream, till someone listens. It isn’t that there isn’t coverage – it is just that it has not been picked up and blown up the story. It is up to concerned individuals to keep stories alive, to bring them to the notice of the world at large. In a networked world, that is possible .

(The views expressed in this column are the writer’s own)

Oct 172011

My column in today’s DNA:

If a tree falls in a forest, and no one is around to have heard it fall, does it make a sound?’ is an old philosophical question on which there has been much heated argument over the centuries. The debate is a consequence of a school of philosophy that believes that events exist from the point of view of the observer. If there is no observer, then there is no event. Others, especially scientists, maintain that events exist irrespective of the presence of the observer.
In an era of 24-hour news channels, this philosophy can be revisited. If an event occurs, let’s say a protest, and there is no media coverage, then as far as public consciousness is concerned, does the issue even exist? Groups and causes that can articulate their view in media-friendly chunks have their issues become part of the public debate. Groups and causes that cannot, do not exist as far as the public space is concerned. Political and civil society groups of all hues and shades are beginning to realise this. They have realised that media coverage works best in the media centres — Mumbai and Delhi. And, protests work best when conducted in the full glare of the media. They realise that if there is no observer for an event, then the protest is as good as being dead in the water. For example, Irom Sharmilla has been fasting to repeal the Armed Forces Special Powers Act for over 10 years, and it is just now that the protest has been noticed. And, that is because Anna Hazare’s 12-day fast brought Irom Sharmilla’s decade long fast into the limelight. Similarly,38-year-old Swami Nigamanand Saraswati died trying to save the Ganga from pollution caused by illegal mining. After 68 days of fasting in Haridwar he passed away. His death was covered by the ‘national media’ because it coincided with Baba Ramdev’s little drama at the Ramlila grounds. But his cause, that of saving the Ganga, is largely ignored.
Media coverage is not about how ‘good’ or ‘bad’, ‘important’ or ‘unimportant’ a cause is. It is about being part of the media’s line of sight and being able to keep catching their attention. Once the media starts paying attention, then the idea is to keep engaging the media on a constant basis, so that the cycle of publicity continues.
Today, packaging of news surrounding the protest is as important as the protest itself. Every successful protest is handled like a product. And, in a modern world, the product attributes are not as important as the packaging and promotional hype surrounding it.
That is the reason for the insistence on Jantar Mantar by Team Anna. Anna could have fasted anywhere else in India. After all, Gandhi fasted wherever he was — his ashram, jails, various cities — location didn’t deter him. But, in a modern India which is wired 24/7, it is important to be where the media is. If Anna Hazare had fasted in Ralegaon Siddhi would the event have been part of pan national consciousness or would it have been like Nigamanand Saraswati’s fast, mentioned in passing by regional news while being largely ignored by the ‘national’ media?
The recent attack by members of the ‘Bhagat Singh Kranti Sena’ on Prashant Bhushan — a core member of Team Anna — in full view of a television news crew is taking this philosophy one step further. The issue raised by the Bhagat Singh Kranti Sena becomes part of national consciousness, overnight, because it was sensational, violent, jingoistic and on tape. We would not even have heard of this fringe organisation if they had hit someone without the TV crew being present. They were mimicking the acts of Sri Ram Sene a few years ago. The Ram Sene protesting against declining ‘moral’ values — decided to go to the nearest pub and beat up a few girls who were drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes. But, before they went to teach the girls a lesson, they called the camera crews.

As a result, an intolerant, violent, extreme fringe organisation became part of pan-Indian consciousness.

News focus on strife, violence, drama and sensationalism to increase ratings, has led to it becoming the launching pad for many a fringe organisation. These groups thrive on media coverage. Their philosophy is immaterial — their rage is what sells. In its blinkered focus on only ratings, news channels have unleashed a genie that needs to be put back in the bottle.

Oct 032011

My column in Today’s DNA

Odisha. Sikkim. Andhra Pradesh. Manipur. Natural disasters struck the first two states. Floods in Odisha impacted 2.2 million Indian citizens. People lost lives.

Property was destroyed. Development washed away. Sikkim suffered an earthquake measuring 6.8 on the Richter scale. At least 100 people died. The loss in monetary terms is still being calculated, and expected to be in the range of tens of thousands of crores. You would think that there would be media outrage — why is it that after 60 years and crores of rupees we can’t build houses that aren’t washed away? That can’t withstand an earthquake. But, there was silence. In Andhra Pradesh and Manipur, citizens, political movements, and civil society have blockaded the lives and liberty of other citizens. Inhabitants of Manipur have been blockaded for two months.

Essential goods cost a bomb. An LPG cylinder costs Rs2,000, and vegetables like the humble potato cost Rs45 a kilo. In Andhra Pradesh a ‘strike’ by a few people agitating for Telangana has left the majority in darkness. Electricity cuts are to the tune of 16 to 22 hours. Crores of Indian citizens are in deep distress. Yet, there seems to be a relative silence in the ‘national’ broadcast news media about these events. Imagine if events similar to these, even a fraction in impact and magnitude, had occurred in Mumbai or Delhi and ask yourselves — how would the media have covered it?

In India, it is very clear that there is a news media centre — cities, citizens, causes & civil societies that get noticed, and a media periphery — issues, areas, people and events that are ignored. The national media tends to do very well when issues are based in its playing fields — Mumbai and Delhi. Regional media do well covering their individual areas or states. The issues arise when it comes to the coverage of India. India is more than just Mumbai or Delhi. It is greater than individual regions or states. It is a diverse, plural, complex, thriving, vibrant nation that deserves better than to be ignored like a beggar at the feast.

the rest of the article is here