S. Gopikrishna Warrier
In June 2014, the Narmada Control Authority (NCA) of the Government of India approved the Gujarat Government’s application to increase the height of the Sardar Sarovar dam by 17.6 metres to 138.6 metres. The news was reported in the media, and there were a few scattered stories. There was also scattered reporting on the Jabalpur High Court’s stay on the NCA’s decision, and later the Supreme Court refusing to accept NCA’s appeal to transfer the case to the apex court.
Flash back to the winter of 1990-1991. Tribals from the Narmada valley and environmental activists protesting against the Sardar Sarovar project marched from Madhya Pradesh to the dam site in Gujarat. They were stopped at Ferkuva, the border village between Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat by pro-dam supporters.
The stalemate at Ferkuva continued for weeks, and the media covered it extensively. Much of the national media was sympathetic to the cause of displaced tribals, which was framed as the argument for environment and sustainability.
Even while the environmental and rehabilitation issues related to the Sardar Sarovar project remain the same, the media framing of the Narmada discourse changed over the two decades. Possibly reflecting the current national development discourse framed by the urban middle class, the media gives a lesser priority to environment and sustainability today. After all, journalists themselves are mostly drawn from the socio-economic class that they report about.
Media Construction of Environment and Sustainability in India by Prithi Nambiar tries to understand how the media, and through it the opinion of the public and policy makers frame the discourse on environment and sustainability in a “fast-developing and environmentally — and economically-stressed country like India.”
Nambiar, currently working with the Centre for Environment Education in Sydney, Australia, is a veteran of an environment campaign related to the Narayan Sarovar wildlife sanctuary in the Kutch region of Gujarat, while she was working in India in the 1990s.
Framing is the way in which a story is organised and told as well as the manner in which it is received, literally structuring what the public perceives as reality. Framing defines what is selected, emphasised and presented and in turn creates tacit theories about what exists, what happens and what matters.
According to Nambiar’s research findings, framing is not being used in any conscious or deliberate manner by mainstream media in India to specifically strengthen public understanding of environment and sustainability. “There appears to be a degree of superficiality in the mainstream media framing of sustainability within public discourse in India which could be responsible for keeping public engagement at the low level perceived by the experts and by media,” writes Nambiar. “The assumption of low public interest in sustainability issues leads media to narrowly interpret these issues through dramatising their controversial aspects rather than presenting them in a comprehensive and considered fashion.”
There are exceptions though, states Nambiar. She singles out The Hindu group of publications, and especially Frontline for praise in their coverage on environment and sustainability.
In general, with the media’s disconnect with the environment and sustainability discourse, it looks for controversies, and “tend to swiftly polarise issues along the well-worn battle lines between environment and development, thus preventing dialogue and negotiation and public involvement.” In turn, the subsequent inability among the public to clearly process polarised views and mediated information “leads to distance and detachment.”
The crisis frame is the one that is most used by journalists. They look at environment and sustainability when a crisis happens. This is usually clustered with conflict and controversy frames.
The other frames used by the media, though less often, include the drama frame by which environmental issues are sensationalised; the developed world ploy especially when dealing with international negotiations; the activist frame; the scientific frame; attribution of responsibility frame; morality frame to deal with intra-generational equity between nations and peoples; the local evidence frame to locate global issues within local contexts; the blame frame; and the human interest frame.
The weakness of Nambiar’s analysis is that she draws one part of her conclusions from 30 interviewed respondents — six each from academia, the corporate world, the government, media and non-governmental organisations. Even though from their responses it is easy to presume that this group has been selected with care, 30 is too thin a slice as a representative sample.
The other part of her findings is drawn from media content analysis. Here too, she has analysed the contents of one publication — Frontline — and for a rather short period from December 2007 to January 2009.
Despite the small sample size, Nambiar’s conclusions are very significant. That is where the author has drawn on her years of experience gained while working with an Ahmedabad-based environmental communication organisation. Her book succeeds in adding to the understanding on how media perceives environment and sustainability.
There is a problem, however, when a thesis is published as a book. Much space is wasted on literature survey, which is not of interest to anyone else other than the subject researchers. In the book under review only the last three chapters out of the eight deal with the author’s research. It is like paying up for a boxing match and having to watch the contestants warm up for an hour before the fight.
This reviewer would have preferred if Nambiar conceptualised and wrote from scratch a book combining her research and field experience. That would have caught the attention of the general reader more effectively.