How the Indian News Covered the 2017 Farmer Protests: A Quantitative Study

Anushka Shah (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and Zeenab Aneez
November 30, 2017

Between March to July earlier this year, India saw an eruption of farmer protests in the state of Delhi, districts of Maharashtra and in Mandsaur, Madhya Pradesh. The protests were widespread in geography as well as in the political reactions they elicited, and soon came to be a national issue that briefly received significant attention from English and local language media.

The following study explores aspects of this coverage and the manner in which the farmers and causes and consequences of the farm crisis were presented in the English-language Indian press for the time duration of the protests, starting from mid-March when the Tamil Nadu Farmers began their strike, to mid July 2017.

Media Cloud, an open-source platform developed by the MIT Media Lab in collaboration with the Berkman Klein Centre at Harvard University, was used for the analysis of this study. Media Cloud uses a database of over 650+ English language news websites in India - the collection includes legacy newspapers such as the Times of India and The Hindu, broadcast sources such as NDTV and Times Now, digital-native websites like The Wire and as well small blogs and websites that carry news about India.

Media Cloud works both as a data collection and content analysis platform. It collects content from news sources that have a digital presence via RSS or ‘Rich Site Summary’ feeds on a regular basis, saving them to it’s internal database. This database can be queried using various search terms, news sources or source collections, and time spans. The system further performs a ‘web crawl’ or a process of exploring hyperlinks embedded within the articles to discover any related content (the crawl is performed with 15 iterations to ensure all content relevant to search is discovered over the web). The platform includes various features of text and link analysis such as overall word frequency, automatic theme detection, and network mapping.

Coverage of the agrarian crisis by the English-language press

Veteran journalists and researchers have expressed the concern that rural India and the agricultural sector is underrepresented in Indian media. An Al Jazeera feature on Indian media quoted a small, but recent study by the Centre for Media Studies which analyzed six English and Hindi newspapers including  Dainik Bhaskar, Dainik Jagran, The Times of India and The Hindu for the course of two months in 2015 and found that the percentage of front page stories focusing on rural India was zero with the exception of 1.37% of stories by The Hindu in the second month. Looking at six broadcast news outlets including DD News, Zee News and NDTV showed that that rural news did not receive more than 7 minutes of primetime on any of the surveyed news channels.

“Our entire focus is on metropolitan India, what happens in Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore, Chennai - that makes the headlines. It’s almost as if we think viewers are not interested in rural India. So our entire hierarchy of news has very little space for rural India,” says journalist Rajdeep Sardesai, also featured in the article.

Media Cloud was used to investigate if the above trend is reflected in its database. On investigating the share of stories related to farming or agriculture (the search terms used were farm*, agri*, and agro) within this English-language Indian news collection in the year 2016, it was found that only 4.4% of all news stories were about topics relating to farming or agriculture.

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4.4% of all stories in 2016, across 650+ English-language news sources in India, were dedicated to either farming or agriculture

Giving a talk at a media seminar earlier in 2017, veteran journalist P. Sainath, pointed out that agriculture reporting “centers on the Agriculture Ministry and the budget allocation given to this sector, and the reporter primarily works out of Delhi,”. He attributes this in part to the absence of an agriculture or labour correspondent in mainstream newsrooms.

In running a computer-generated automatic detection of key themes  within this farming/ agro coverage, it was found found that  matters relating to ‘food’ and ‘politics’ were almost equally represented within the sample.


Further investigation using Media Cloud’s Topic Mapper tool to take a closer look at this collection of stories for a six month duration (June to December 2016), it was found that among the most frequently used words were ‘agriculture’, ‘minister’, ‘congress’ and ‘crops’.  

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The most frequently used words within the sample of coverage from June to December 2016
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A word tree shows the terms preceding and following the word ‘agriculture’ in the coverage from June to December 2016

The term ‘agriculture’ is most often used in a political context and ‘crops’ have been spoken about primarily in relation to the GMO debate. While these subjects do relate to farming and agriculture, they also pertain to news that originated in the country’s political and scientific centres, rather than its villages where the effects of these developments are most impactful.

As in the case of the farmer’s protests, a spike in coverage is perhaps in relation to specific episodes or crises that mark the farm sector, rather than regular and routine coverage of the various social and economic aspects of farming and agriculture. As a result, the nature of the coverage during such episodic reporting often determines then how urban Indian readership understands rural India.

Coverage of the protests from March to July 2017

Although media coverage that started in March petered out by early April, attention was further revived by late April and increased to ia much greater intensity in early June as a result of the protests in Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. Media coverage peaked following the violence and subsequent police firing in Mandsaur.  During the end of June, the farmer protests were largely overshadowed by the spate of cow-related violence erupting in various parts of the country.

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The occurrence of the words farm* AND protest* from the early March to mid-July 2017

Weekly frequencies of certain keywords during the course of the protests show that between March and April, the focus began with the Neduvasal protest and the Cauvery issue. However, by May, the attention shifted to drought and suicide with a large amount of coverage focusing on political reactions to the protests. By the third week of May, issues of drought and suicide took a back seat to that of loan waivers.


Though completely non-violent and staged with permission from the State, the farmers protest in Tamil Nadu gave journalists much to write about: the protest involved mock funerals and skits, an ‘angapradakshinam’ or a ritual of rolling on the floor, nudity when denied audience with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, rats, snakes and consumption of urine.

The farmers, as one journalist points out, are aware that the protest has to be tailored for media consumption and used a Whatsapp group to let the media know of their demonstrations in advance. In an interview with the Hindustan Times, one of the leaders of the protest explained that the rationale behind their unconventional methods was to shed light on the Centre’s insensitivity towards their community. The farmers’ use of unconventional tactics succeeded in capturing a media space where 'offbeat’ news sells.

News organisations were quick to brand the Tamil Nadu farmers as ‘skull protesters’ and used adjectives such as ‘unique’, ‘shocking,' ‘bizarre’ and ‘ghory’ to describe them. One web-native news site also categorized stories related to the farmers’ protests under ‘skull protests’.

In an interview with a reporter from a leading print newspaper who covered the protests from the ground, the use of such terms is strategic; “Once the reader is onto a certain keyword - say 'skull protests' - we can then use that keyword to lead them to stories that talk about the issues surrounding it - this is what we did and I think this was not necessarily a bad thing. At the end of the day, if the reader is going to look for ’skull protests’ they should be able to find articles that provide context”. The strategic use of keywords like ‘skull protests’ points to how textual content is often influenced by social media trends and search engine optimization.

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Headline of a story (22nd April 2017) from the India Today website about the protests by Tamil Nadu farmers

Media Cloud data showed that nearly 94% of stories from the sample of 5072, had mentions and descriptions of the unconventional methods used by the farmers to gain attention or on the violence related to the protests. This is compared to 36.5% of stories that talked about the farmers’ demands for loan waiver, 27% about low Minimum Support Price (MSP), and an even lower number of stories that mentioned rising input costs (0.7%) or land reform (0.4%).

Though it is hard to say for sure that the protest would have been ignored if not for these theatrics and violence (in the case of Mandsaur), the approach certainly succeeded in garnering media attention. Initial spikes in intensity of coverage typically corresponded either to a spectacle created by the farmers or visit from an important political leader. The second wave of coverage that occurred between June 1 and June 10, was centered on the protests in Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh, and peaked following the fatal police firing on five farmers in Mandsaur, Madhya Pradesh.

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Comparing the subset of stories reporting on the theatrics used by the farmers (orange bubble) to the number of stories in the whole topic itself (blue bubble). The comparison shows how almost all (94%) of stories focused on reporting this.

The lack of discussion around the economic conditions and policies that pertain to the issue can leave the readers with very little context in which to understand the farmers’ struggle and  also keep them uninformed about the agrarian crisis and their own stake in the matter. The additional problem about focusing on theatrics is that such coverage is hard to sustain onto consistent news reporting about the subject; it pushes the coverage of the protest into the space of episodic reporting rather than regular coverage, and gives way to the next news cycle.  


Political reactions are often seen as a way to gauge the impact of the protest and hence a certain degree of coverage of how relevant politicians are responding to the issue is a crucial addition to the overall coverage. However, a skewed focus towards this can contribute in distracting from other aspects. Reporting on the strategies, gains and losses of various political players can be tempting and rewarding in terms of viewer attention, as it can make a depressing event such as farmer suicides and drought far more exciting to readers.

From our analysis of the coverage of the protests, we found that nearly 80% of the stories made direct mention of ministers or political parties. The dominant theme of the coverage of the protests was “politics and government” - a trend reflective of the political focus around agrarian reporting as mentioned before.

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The top themes detected in the stories on the farmers protests using a machine-learning model created at the MIT Media Lab

This result is further seen from the word cloud below which shows the most frequently used words within the stories of the farmers protest. The most frequently used word was ‘minister’ with mentions of the Congress and BJP parties as well as names of political leaders following closely behind.

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The most frequently used words within the stories of the farmers protest
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A word tree below illustrates the terms used most frequently with the word ‘minister’ in the reporting. There is a focus on Chief Ministers Shivraj Singh Chauhan and Devendra Fadnavis and on Prime Minister Narendra Modi.


Most protests are held as a means to draw attention to specific issues. Reporting just the symptoms, rather than using the moment to delve into the causes, does disservice to both the cause of the protestor and the knowledge of the audience.

With regards to the farm crisis, the coverage fails to focus adequately on the root causes of the crisis and also frequently mistakes symptoms like ‘drought’ and ‘farmer suicide’ as causes rather than symptoms of the crisis. Much of the reportage focused on these two issues, with little investigation into the root causes behind the pervasive drought. In coding stories that discussed causes of the crisis, it was found that nearly one-third of the stories attributed the problem directly to either drought or suicide.

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The set of stories coded by Media Cloud as attributing the protests to farmer suicides (orange bubble) or drought (green bubble) in comparison to the total number of stories in the whole topic

The key words in context below show how the most common terms following “due to” in sentence about the farm crisis are focused on severe or prolonged drought.

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A word tree below shows the terms following the phrase “due to” most frequently in the coverage of the farmer protests

As P Sainath points out in this Facebook live video - the drought across the country, and especially in states like Maharashtra, is a man-made phenomenon resulting from years of ignoring the farm sector. To advocate the idea that this drought is a singular event caused by nature is to entirely miss all the complexity of root-causes and political/ policy errors leading up to the drought.

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Times of India article (13th April 2017) illustrating a timeline of the farm crisis in Tamil Nadu

Sainath further discusses the problem of unemployment, credit diversion to corporations, rising input costs, and GMO as critical causes of the drought. In fact, in 2016 India had a successful rainfall. In an article titled “Why a bountiful harvest drove farmers to despair and anger”, the data-journalism blog IndiaSpend identifies low minimum support prices (MSP), demonetization, and poor irrigation as key causes of the crisis.

On looking at the comparative focus on structural causes of the problem such as credit diversion to large corporations, rural unemployment, rising input costs, GMO, or low minimum support prices, it was found that none of these received half the attention that political responses did (this was done by looking at stories about the farmer protest that contained terms referring to the above causes; this ensures that stories about GMO for example are not confounded with conversations about GMO in other spaces).

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Ccomparing the volume of stories within the farmers protest focusing on political coverage, low Minimum Support Price (MSP), GMO, rising input costs, unemployment, and credit diversion (the key below indicates the colour of each topic)

Amidst these, the causes that received the most relative attention was the issue of low MSP and GMO or genetically modified foods. Rural unemployment and credit diversion got little to no attention.

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Comparing the number of stories focusing on political coverage (orange bubble) to structural causes of the crisis such as low MSP and GMO or genetically modified foods relative to the number of total stories on the farmer protests

The themes the news chooses to focus on when reporting an issue can determine how an audience understands the causes and symptoms of that problem. In covering the farmer protests primarily through the lens of political responses and rioting, the news directs our attention to the reactions and symptoms rather than the root causes of the problem.  

The majority of our resulting conversation around the issue then remains in the realm of protest, rather than deliberation around structural causes. For example, as seen in the image below, an analysis around the most frequently discussed topics on Twitter in India around the topic of the farm crisis stayed fixed on the protest itself (even the terms identified within the bubble of ‘farmer’ are related to the protest, such as ‘skulls’ or ‘shot’, ‘dead’ (referring to the Mandsaur episode)).

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Data from the platform Crimson Hexagon to show the key topics discussed on Twitter in India around the farmer protests


In an episode of the Daily Show, an American late-night and political satire show, the host Jon Stewart talks about the Baltimore protests. The problem with portraying the protesters through the lens of destruction and violence, he explains, is to miss a moment to contextualize the problems of a community.

With little to no consistent reporting on farmer’s issues and the farm crisis, episodic-coverage driven by events such as protests and riots, and an overwhelming focus on political reactions and symptoms, the English-language news in India missed an opportunity to help its audience understand the complex realities which underlie the agrarian crisis.

This lack of investment in rural reporting could be attributed to a resource crunch in the news industry. In his chat with Al Jazeera, Rajdeep Sardesai points out that the business model of news today is struggling to plough resources back into the business and subsequently less investment is taking place in news gathering. As a result, news organisations are covering more stories that take place closer to their bureaus than in far away villages, except in the case of such episodes involving dramatic protests and violence.

Even in the case of the 2017 farmer protests, a deep dive into the content of the coverage has shows that the coverage was largely dominated by the demonstrations and violence associated with the protests, rather than the underlying causes.