About 120 kms southwest from Lucknow, flanked by the districts of Allahabad and Varanasi, lies the district of Mirzapur. In many ways it is your average Hindi belt district, with, according to the 1991 census, a population of 16,57,140, of which nearly one third are deemed to be educated. The most widely circulated papers here are all in Hindi: Aaj, Hindustan Jagran and Ujala. Covering nearly 5,000 sq km, the district is known largely for its carpet weaving and mining industries and their attendant negatives of child and bonded labour.
Like many other districts in India, the regional press here does what the national press does not: it goes down to the district, block and village level in its quest for news. It caters to the grassroots and reports on what is happening there. Unlike the more impersonal, national metro-urban centric press, the regional media supposedly carries the voice of the little people to district level functionaries and beyond. It ought then to play a critical role in terms of pushing policy and moulding public opinion. And yet as this case study of Mirzapur shows it does not.
For Singh the most important development issues are family planning and employment. The government is implementing its programmes and schemes through local groups, which is probably the third-most important link in the chain of development. "But the media ignores this layer. Even when it does report on local groups, it talks more about bank loans, partly because everyone does." His final criticism is that the print media is usually unable to bring about any perceptible change in the lives of the people. "All reporting comes to naught when you start looking for any developmental consequences. "
Chandra Shekhar Shukla has been a BDO at Rajgarh block for six months. A keen reader of Hindi newspapers he is generally faults local coverage. " I often feel dissatisfied because I feel I am not able to lay my hands on any analysis," Also according to Shukla, the press tends to focus entirely on negative aspects. " There should be two sides to any event - two ways to interpret it: one positive and the other negative. Newspapers and journalists seem to have specialize in negative reporting."
He gives an example of a meeting for the Jawahar Rozagar Yojana which he organized in his previous posting. Gram Sabhas (village general bodies) are supposed to monitor this scheme in the presence of the BDO. At one village the quorum of ten per cent required for holding such meetings was not reached. He said he opted to hold it nevertheless as many people had come. The next day it was all over the newspapers: that he had gone ahead with the meeting without a quorum and was therefore encouraging despotism. The reporter had not even tried to get his side of the story. His point was that if they had not gone ahead with the meeting that day, the villagers who had made the effort of coming would have been de-motivated. But this fact was totally missing in the reportage.
PTIs Srivastav analyzes that the fault lies with both reporters and ordinary citizens. Most local reporters look at journalism as a means to get close to the government. For them, its a smart career move that brings them clout as well as respectability. Consequently, serious coverage--- especially coverage of development issues suffers. And they and their newspapers get away with this approach because actually readers are quite disinterested. "They are indifferent to issues of democracy, governance and development. "
He gives the example of the Jalnidhi project that the Government has introduced to encourage conservation of water resources, especially ground water, by local communities. The thrust of the programme is therefore water and natural resource management. However, he says, in the local media Jalnidhi is reduced to merely provisioning of drinking water, a peya-jal sambandhit programme. "But the readership does not demand that critical analysis be made of any of the projects, or for that matter any of the news." The media then opts for a superficial approach.
So local news, at least the bulk of it, is just that. Miscellaneous bits of information served up to inform, satisfy curiosity, meet the small town hunger for both sensational and neighbourhood news. Thus, according to Jayaswal, news items focus on Hanuman kirtans being organized in mohallas, or dharnas being held by certain political parties since that satisfies the urge of the readers to both know what is happening as well as to be content seeing the names of their localities printed. Neither are the stringers required to provide their insights nor do readers demand to know about events in greater detail than are presented. Sometimes old news is even actually recycled but since readers find names of their villages in print again nobody complains too much.
So does the media connect events with processes? It does not. Its intention is to involve local readers, and give them a sense of identification with the newspaper, which will keep them reading it. It is by and large status quoist. It satisfies curiosity to some extent, but it changes precious little.
Perceptions of what constitute local news and how much impact it has also comes from readers. Rural readers have their own expectations of newspapers. Fifty two year old Tejbal Chaturvedi, Devripurab, a cultivator in Halliya, is high school pass, and a subscriber to Dainik Jagran. He finds local news pages mostly to be crime chronicles. From the conditions in the rural areas it s difficult to believe that the bureaucracy has taken note of the negative daily reports. Roads continue to be bad, and hand pumps are never repaired. Sanju Agrahari, a businessman in Halliya town, says he keeps, all-important newspapers such as Aaj, Hindustan, Jagran and Ujala at his cloth shop. "I keep newspapers in my shop simply so that customers can read them. They like to come, sit, chat and glance through the newspapers. I do not have the time to read any newspapers. Frankly, I find them most irrelevant. They are full of political news."
Not all stringers are convinced that newspaper reading comes from a genuine hunger to know. Ojha feels that people treat newspapers mostly as a status symbol. "It is important for them to show to their peers, co-workers, that they read newspapers. So perhaps the content of the news itself does not matter so much. Similarly, Singh of Jagran, says it is important to ask why people read newspapers. "I think it also gives us reporters a perspective when we write, so that we can craft our stories in a certain style, and pick up certain kinds of news that will cater to what people want to read. The way I have seen it, newspaper reading is a habit with people not so much because they want to 'know' about what is happening, but because they look at reading as a status symbol. There has been so much talk about literacy rates, and how important it is for people to read and write, and the lifestyles that we see most literate people leading, that it propels us to flaunt that we also read papers: that is why the content is not important. "
Shukla says that in spite of all his cynicism, he still is hopeful of the print media. " In the past it performed the role of catalyst, by propelling V.P. Singh to power during the Bofors kaand. Before that, Arun Shourie was the hit; he showed us how to do it. Society adapts to changes, to behaviours and to ideas, depending on how these are introduced. The entire history of social change bears testimony to this. Definitely, the print media has the potential to unleash all the positive energies that are held together by what the Indian Constitution calls 'we-the-people'. But they must stop being dictated to by advertisements."