By Prashant Ghabak:
The image (left) of journalist Narayan Pargaien was taken during the Uttarakhand Floods in 2013. To recall, the Uttarakhand floods resulted in a loss of close to 5700 lives, which is the official government estimate (locals put this figure around 15000). To put this in perspective, this number is bigger than the total deaths caused by terrorism in India during the last 15 years. What intrigued me most was that the media coverage didn’t reflect the gravity and impact of the calamity. One can question Narayan Pargaien’s ethics and professionalism, but I am afraid to say that he may have done a public service with his ‘insensitive’ act. His act caused a lot of outrage among the Indian media and the Indian elite. The floods started receiving more media coverage. It was ironical and unfortunate to see that a stupid act of a journalist achieved what the death of thousands could not.
This incident raised a lot of questions for me. Is it the media which sets the popular discourse of our country? Or is the media just feeding the people with what they want? For people to dictate terms, they should at least, learn about the event through the media, right?
In his brilliant book, ‘Thinking Fast and Slow,’ Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman talks about ‘availability cascade’ which explains how incidents become sticky and dominate the media coverage for sustained periods of time and how that can reshape Government priorities:
“An availability cascade is a self-sustaining chain of events, which may start from media reports of a relatively minor event and lead up to public panic and large-scale government action. On some occasions, a media story about a risk catches the attention of a segment of the public, which becomes aroused and worried. This emotional reaction becomes a story in itself, prompting additional coverage in the media, which in turn produces greater concern and involvement. The cycle is sometimes sped along deliberately by ‘availability entrepreneurs,’ individuals or organizations who work to ensure a continuous flow of worrying news. The danger is increasingly exaggerated as the media compete for attention-grabbing headlines. Scientists and others who try to dampen the increasing fear and revulsion attract little attention, most of it hostile; anyone who claims that the danger is overstated is suspected of association with a ‘heinous cover-up.’ The issue becomes politically important because it is on everyone’s mind, and the response of the political system is guided by the intensity of public sentiment. The availability cascade has now reset priorities. Other risks, and other ways that resources could be applied for the public good, all have faded into the background.”
This explains why a lynching in Dadri becomes national news but similar cases in other parts are ignored. Why a rape of a youth in Delhi causes nationwide protests but the rape of two backward caste minors in a remote village in Bihar few days after that is ignored completely. The biggest problem with the “availability cascade” is that a lot of times it succeeds in reshaping the priorities of the government to issues which might be of less public importance and can sometimes lead to disastrous effect. The Arushi Talwar case or the Sheena Bora case are the best example of this. The bigger impact is however on the issues which get ignored because of it.
India is home to the world’s largest poor population according to world bank estimates. While we are sending rockets to mars, we have one of the worst health care systems in the world. In India every year, 1.34 million children die before completing five years, of which 7,48,000 die within the first month of their life. Which basically means more than 2,000 newborn die each day in India. This damage is much more than any terrorist attack or mob lynching can cause even if it happens every day. Yet there is very little media coverage on this.
Our education system is not doing any better either. According to the ASER 2015 report, only 48% of class 5 students can read a class 2 text. That figure was 47% last year. That shows how little improvement, we have made. When school children can’t do basic arithmetic and construct simple sentences, all the talk of “Acche Din” is too premature even if we clock a high GDP growth rate.
And the media is just a part of the problem. There is an urgent need to change the way we consume news. Social Media has shown that citizens can drive the media agenda and become vigilant participants in the democratic process. The first step in doing that is figuring out what is important and asking the right questions. Both the Jan Lokpal movement and the Nirbhaya protests demonstrated the power media has in shaping government policies. They were unique in a sense because citizens having a say in public policy is a kind of a rarity in India. It taught us that politicians do respond to incentives if we are persistent enough to create them. We can do that by showing that education, healthcare, and a lawful society matter more to us than opinions of movie actors or fringe politicians. We have to stop outraging about every statement politicians make and hold them accountable for what they do.