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Local Newspapers: The Unread Side of Development

June 28, 2011

This is the first post in a two-part series on how different sources of information influence our thinking on society, politics and development.

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about how much our thinking regarding issues in development is shaped by access to the type of information we have. In other words, where do we derive the knowledge that informs our “priors”?

More often than not, we form an opinion regarding policy issues in developing countries by analyzing articles from academic journals and mostly quality publications in Europe and North America as the source of news, opinion and analysis. This may, infact, not even be deliberate but simply a result of where knowledge economies are spatially concentrated. What the local media and intellectuals within these countries are saying is often a neglected sphere in information gathering and processing. However, it can be argued that simply turning to local media outlets is not the only missing piece of the puzzle. Even within a country, there are multiple narratives differentiated by many factors including language. The context I am linguistically familiar with is Pakistan but it also serves as a good case study since there are two official languages in use.

Navigating the Landscape of Pakistani Media

Pakistan’s readership pattern of English and Urdu news publications represents the socio-political divide in the country. Aside from a sizable urban middle class (the exact definition of which, is also highly debatable), the rest of the country is comprised of a small but prominent Anglophone elite and the remaining majority, who speak regional languages but read Urdu newspapers. The English media has a small following, whereas Urdu media has a much broader reach in terms of circulation and readership. Dawn, the largest circulating English language daily, is estimated to sell 138,000 copies per day whereas leading Urdu newspaper, Jang, sells more than 800,000 copies per day. An important thing to keep in mind is that while circulation may be high, readership may be even higher. Typically, one copy of a newspaper could be read by upto even 8 individuals in a household so the knock-on effect is huge.

There is a stark contrast between English and Urdu media not just with regard to the varied audience they cater to but also in terms of the material they publish. The Urdu press  provides a broader window into domestic issues with reporting focusing more on micro-level issues such as power shortages, price hikes in commodities and localized crimes with limited emphasis on geo-strategic or foreign policy issues (so for instance Obama’s visit to India will not occupy much space in the Urdu press). Even when they do report on international affairs, it is often peppered with conspiracy theories and lacks thorough research and analysis. Macro-level  issues such as aid delivery, preventive health care, education reform etc are largely ignored by the Urdu media. English newspapers do a much better job at highlighting such issues, which is why they have greater leverage amongst policy makers and civil society.

What’s the Bottom-line?

What does all this mean for a US or Europe-based researcher in development or public policy focussing on issues in Pakistan without being based there (so let’s assume they don’t have the advantage of interaction with locals)? Even if they do scan the local media, it is the English-language media. Having access only to English newspapers does not provide a comprehensive and accurate view of the country, but the issue is less of not having access to the  stories, rather of not having said access to Pakistani perceptions and attitudes. The Urdu press tends to carry stories that reflect a certain worldview i.e. of the majority of the population and not the upper strata of society. All in all, anyone studying Pakistan who isn’t reading the Urdu newspapers is missing out on a major source of data and not getting a balanced perspective not just in terms of stories covered but also in terms of gauging widely held public perceptions.

The dichotomy presented between two mediums differentiated by language is a simplistic analysis of a much more complex issue, which is inextricably linked to literacy levels in the country, trends of reading habits and the advent of private media channels in the last decade (which many would argue have left newspapers behind in terms of rapid flow of information). These issues are significant and cannot be ignored. The scope of the post, however, is to reflect on how our priors may be shaped by incomplete information due to the limited access to information we may have and recognizing that language is a huge barrier. I would be really interested in hearing more about how this plays out in other contexts as well.

* Sentences in Italics are from the article: The bin Laden aftermath: Pakistan’s Urdu Media Reacts in Foreign Policy Magazine

One Comment leave one →
  1. June 29, 2011 3:05 pm

    Agree with your point about language being barrier when it comes to providing a cohesive narrative about politics or policy making. Not just to the outsider, but also for local people working in the sector in developing countries.

    Regional disparities play a big role as well in a large country like India. So the way media reports a certain issue will not just be different in the vernacular press and the English language press but it also differs significantly between the English language press publications in Northern India as well as Southern India because of certain historical processes and socio-economic differences.

    I distinctly remember different public and media reactions on the controversial issue of Special Economic Zones (SEZs) in Delhi/Bombay and Chennai where I was based at that point. Or how lukewarm the reporting of the Sri Lankan civil war usually was in widely-read, respectable Delhi based newspapers compared to ones in Tamil Nadu, where the issue stoked more emotion than anywhere else in India.

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