NEHA MUJUMDAR, Courtesy: The Hoot

Time Magazine named ‘the Protester’ the person of the year for 2011, a year marked by global people’s movements. Against this backdrop, newspaper coverage of protests merits attention, as news media can have an agenda-setting function in determining what issues form part of the public consciousness. When there are protests around a contentious issue, media attention and the nature of its coverage can significantly impact the course of the issue itself.

This paper is focused mainly on a preliminary understanding in quantitative and qualitative terms of how four national dailies covered protests in Chennai. A research study was undertaken where Chennai editions of four English-language dailies were observed for eight weeks.

Method

The comparative research focused on the newspaper coverage of protest events in the city of Chennai. Four English-language dailies were studied – the Times of India, The Hindu, The New Indian Express and Deccan Chronicle, across a period of eight weeks. During the research period (October 7 to December 7), data on lengths and volumes of articles on protests was collected. A total of 196 articles covered local protests. The coding sheet contained columns for date and newspaper of appearance, headline, category and page number, besides space for other remarks.

Broad findings

It was found that coverage of protests varied by category of protesters, besides varying across the four newspapers. On the whole, the Deccan Chronicle had the maximum extent of protest coverage – 65 articles – during this period, closely followed by the New Indian Express, which published 60 articles. The least coverage was by The Times of India, with 28 articles. The Hindu published 43 articles.

Variations across categories

The table shows the broad profiles of the protesters and the corresponding degree of coverage (Table 1). Since the ‘citizens’ protests’ covers many sub-issues, the category is further broken up into indicative issues (Table 2).

Table 1: Categories of protesters and corresponding overall coverage
Typical profile of protesters
Percentage of total coverage (%)
Citizens’ groups
66
Occupational groups
17
Political groups
9
Others
3
Students
3
Caste-based groups
2

(Figures have been rounded to the nearest digit for all tables. )

Table 2: Breakup of ‘citizens’ groups’, by issue
Main issue
Percentage of total coverage (%)
Kudankulam nuclear power plant
65
Miscellaneous (including shifting of Anna centenary library, death penalty issue, miscellaneous civic issues)
23
Mullaperiyar dam
12

Within newspapers, coverage of different categories of protests varied (Table 3).

Table 3: Category-wise coverage, as a percentage of newspaper’s total protest coverage
Indian Express
Deccan Chronicle
The Hindu
Times of India
Citizens groups
80
60
58
64
Occupational groups
11
20
16
25
Political groups
3
12
12
11
Others
6
8
14
0

This clearly indicates that within the newspaper, certain issues are paid greater attention to. Deccan Chronicle devoted significant space to protests by groups of lawyers and doctors (categorised as occupational groups), as did the Times of India. The New Indian Express mostly focused on citizens’ protests around the Kudankulam plant and other issues. The Hindu, too, covered protests similarly, but with the notable exception of the ‘others’ category – which includes caste-based mobilisation issues and protests by students. The Times of India also mostly gave coverage to Kudankulam and protests due to citizen grievances, etc.

Coverage has also varied interestingly around certain specific incidents or themes. For example, The Hindu has tended to have more articles on caste-related mobilisation (e.g., ‘Dalits object to Thevar Jayanthi procession’, 24 October). Four articles so far have appeared with the word ‘Dalit’ featuring prominently, in the headline of the article. No similar pattern has been observed for the other newspapers.

During the research period, Tamil Nadu also was witness to protests over a hike in prices announced by the AIADMK government. Deccan Chronicle covered the protests mostly through photographs with explanatory captions (Road roko, November 9; Pricey agitation, November 22; Public angst, November 23). The Hindu gave greater coverage, especially with a focus on the political groups who organised it. (DYFI, SFI, AIDWA members held, November 22; Hundreds of CPI -M workers arrested, December 6). The New Indian Express published an article critical of proceedings at a protest against price hike, claiming that it was marked mostly by sycophancy (Sycophants miss the point, November 25). This was covered by the Times of India more neutrally (At fast on price rise, Vijayakanth targets both AIADMK, DMK).

Placement of articles

This study evaluated protest reports within the state of Tamil Nadu. As such, protest reports in these areas tended to be placed within the first four pages of the newspaper, as these are the pages in which local and state coverage is usually given. Overall, 73 per cent of reports appeared between page 1 and page 5. Eight per cent of protests made it to the front page. These articles included the issues of the Kudankulam nuclear plant, the controversy around the Mullaperiyar dam, and the issue of FDI in retail.

Though Deccan Chronicle has the greatest coverage of protests, a percentage of the articles (19%) is placed on the “Crime” page (page 3). According to Pradeep Damodaran, City Editor, Deccan Chronicle, “it is the most logical arrangement for important news, since page 3 contains the most important news around the city”.

The special case of Kudankulam

As noted earlier, the Kudankulam protests received extensive coverage in the research period. In general, there was no editorial line taken in the reporting of Kudankulam, though amount of coverage did vary.

The New Indian Express provided in-depth coverage of the issues around the contentious nuclear plant. A series of reports, marked ‘Ground Reality’, typically took the form of a full-page spread, with interesting reports from the area. (E.g., Kids used for NPCIL campaign, 3 November; Idea of fuel switch at Kudankulam unheard of, 14 November).

Deccan Chronicle, too, provided extensive coverage of the protests with some interesting reports (e.g., We fund nuke protest, say Kudankulam women, November 20), besides giving space to the pro-nuclear establishment (e.g., Vasan asks protesters to see reason, November 20; Nuke protesters responsible for power crisis in India, says MoS, November 14).

In The Hindu, the centre pages emerged as important spaces of discussion around Kudankulam. Besides keeping up with the developments on both sides of the debate in the news pages, the opinion pages contained analytical pieces both for and against the issue. Much debate was generated by a full-page special essay by former President A.P.J Abdul Kalam (Nuclear energy is our gateway to a prosperous future, November 6) which detailed the finer points of nuclear energy and asserted the need to move away from “mere conjectures and comic-bookish imagination”. Soon after, Suvrat Raju and MV Ramana’s response (Why Kudankulam is untenable, 12 November)was published in the same pages. Editorially, the stance seemed to be one of support for the plant – “India cannot ignore nuclear power in the era of global warming”, but with a stress on democratic processes and safety standards: “plenty can be done to engage democratically and transparently with the [protesters]”.

In contrast, it was observed that the Times of India did not engage with the debates around the plant as much. Articles related to protests were not as many as in the other newspapers, and typically appeared between page 6-8. However, within its limited coverage, the newspaper did highlighted positive aspects of the plant besides reporting on injuries at protest venues. (4 injured as anti-plant stir turns violent, 15 October; Power-hungry industry spots lifeline in Kudankulam project, 5 December; Industries give thumbs up to N-power plant, 13 November). In terms of editorial stance, it appears that the newspaper supports the commissioning of the plant. “New Delhi and Chennai must work together to clear the logjam that has stopped work at the Kudankulam nuclear power plant,” reads an editorial published on 8 November (Start Kudankulam). The debates around FDI in retail took up much of the newspaper’s coverage, besides articulation of civic issues (such as poor monsoon infrastructure in Chennai) in the research period.

Conclusion

It is not surprising that the extent of coverage of protests varied across the four English-language dailies studied. The continued observation of the newspapers across the research period also indicated the newspapers’ internal priorities in terms of categories of protests. A limitation of the study is that it remained primarily a content analysis and attempts to gain newsroom perspectives did not prove fruitful. While analysing reports on protest events are useful in terms of providing a preliminary indicator of the role of newspapers, the study would have been enhanced through more in-depth understanding of news reporting processes.

Neha Mujumdar
Asian College of Journalism, Chennai
[email protected]
Faculty Advisor: Dr Haripriya Narasimhan