Neglecting the environment at our peril

With Jammu & Kashmir deluged, should the media be doing more to cover the environmental issues that culminate in these disasters? A study of the north east shows the environment is a neglected topic, says NIVEDITA KHANDEKAR. PIX: Assam floods


(Pic @Reuters)

As the raging floods in Jammu and Kashmir hog the limelight due to their intensity and large scale devastation, similar floods in Assam a few weeks ago mostly went unnoticed.

The north eastern states – Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim and Tripura – are a veritable biodiversity hotspot. They hardly ever figure in the mainstream print media and when they do, it is mostly for the wrong reasons.

But forget Delhi editions ignoring the region. That is old news. What is striking is that a study by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Guwahati, has found out that even the Guwahati or Kolkata editions of national newspapers don’t give enough space to the coverage of environmental issues from the region.

Using the ‘Headline Analysis’ method, TISS Guwahati students carried out a survey between July 25 to August 24, 2014 to study the environmental news coverage of four newspapers:  The Telegraph, The Indian Express and The Hindu (Kolkata publications) and The Assam Tribune (Guwahati/Dibrugarh publications).

“The survey ‘Headline Speaks’ was an attempt to understand how the mainstream media reports environmental news especially from the North East and what its biases are. Media coverage shapes public perception of issues, and often determines how the issues are treated by the public and policy makers,” said the MA course students, Amrita Baruah, Gyaneshwari Beshra, L Tsilise Anar, Pranjal Barman and Mamatha Prasad, who carried out the study with their teacher Dr Shalini Sharma.

The findings were published in the current issue of ‘Envirolution’, a monthly publication of the TISS Guwahati’s Department of Ecology, Environment and Sustainable Development.

The Assam Tribune, perhaps predictably, topped the chart by reporting 138 environmental news stories over the period. The Hindu carried 86 news items, The Telegraph carried 56, while The Indian Express reported only 30 items.

When it came to regularity in reporting, The Assam Tribune gave daily coverage to environmental news. The Telegraph and The Hindu did not carry any environmental news on two days while The Indian Express did not carry any for four days.

Apart from frequency, another question the students tried to ascertain was:  “Is the environment important enough to make it to the front page?” Just 8 out of a total of 56 in The Telegraph, 8 out of 86 in The Hindu and 21 out of 138 in The Assam Tribune made to the front page. The Indian Express carried 4 news items from among the 30 on front page.

Wildlife conservation, big projects and disasters dominated these news stories. The Assam Tribune focused more on wildlife conservation issues while The Telegraph gave more space to conflicts and legal developments.

In fact, the news about the tribunal ban on coal mining in Meghalaya was front page news in The Telegraph for three consecutive days, the study found. The thematic categories comprised 1. Wildlife and Forest Conservation (wildlife – flora & fauna – and forest, national parks and their conservation etc); 2. Big projects and related conflicts (development projects such as mines and dams, energy debates on renewable and non-renewable sources etc); 3. Risk, hazard and disaster (Potential risks, current or future hazards, natural – or even man-made – disasters, environmental refugees, rehabilitation etc; 4. Climate change (causes and impacts, temperature and weather reports, awareness activities etc); 5. Environmental degradation and impacts (pollution, impact on livelihood, economy etc) and 6.Others (any news items mentioned outside of above mentioned categories).

As the study was conducted in Guwahati, the importance of the geographical focus was in this order: local (Assam), the North East Region, national (India, excluding the entire North East region) and international news.

The Hindu and The Indian Express hardly gave any coverage to Assam and other North East states. The region was covered mostly by newspapers published locally, mostly in their North East sections. The Assam Tribune had better coverage, which the study points out, “could be because of its clear focus on the North East issues.”

Explaining the rationale behind the study, Dr Sharma said, “Our quest was to understand ‘How does this localization of news affect us?’  In a context where environmental news stories are less reported overall, where the national newspapers do not cover the North East India and the North East newspapers relay environmental news as local news, what is the combined impact of this? It is that important news remains accessible to only a few, and the North East emerges as an area where conflicts and disasters are routine.”

The TISS’ Department of Ecology, Environment and Sustainable Development plans to carry out a similar study every month over a longer time period.

For now, it offers a scary scenario. To repeat what the students said, media coverage helps shape public perception of issues and also determines how the issues/problems are treated by the general public and policy makers.

Senior journalist Rajdeep Sardesai has famously described the ‘Tyranny of Distance’ as the reason for the electronic media’s neglect of the North East. But none of the mainstream print media organisations can offer any such reason as almost all of them have a correspondent, at least in Guwahati.

The news wires, especially the Press Trust of India, offer ample stories from the region on a daily basis. This unabashed neglect by the main stream media merely adds to the problems of an already stressed region.

Hope studies such as this, although rudimentary (explainable as it is the very first attempt by collegian enthusiasts), can bring in the much needed awareness and drive the youngsters to find out more avenues to make their voices heard in the main stream.

(The study can be read here: )

(This story was first carried by The Hoot on Sept 16, 2014. It can be read at )

About Nivedita

Two decades of exposure to social issues as a journalist, as a writer and as a socially conscious traveler. Currently working as an independent journalist, I write on water, environment, climate change and interests of India’s tribal population. I have earlier worked with the Press Trust of India, India’s premier news agency, and the Hindustan Times, Delhi focusing on developmental and environmental issues. My special interests include writing about water, rivers, forests and India’s north-eastern states, especially Arunachal Pradesh. A University topper and a gold medalist, I have also won awards for environmental and health reporting. This is my personal space showcasing my professional work and also chronicling my musings and other interests such as photography

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