Media

Backstory: How Not to Cover a Flood

A fortnightly column from The Wire’s public editor.

As the waters steadily rose in Kerala on August 15, the eyes of the nation were focused on the Red Fort and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, wearing a smashing saffron safa (pop politics: the only Independence Day safa Modi has worn on such occasions which had a prominent touch of green was in 2014, since then the saffron in the turban has steadily come to dominate the colour schema – should we read something into that?). He spoke for over 90 minutes on an assortment of topics – from toilets to coal block auctions – even as the waters were steadily rising in coastal Karnataka and Kerala and in many other regions of the country. Not once did he refer to the trial by water that so many of his fellow Indians were experiencing.

Coverage of the prime ministerial Red Fort oration swamped the news space thereafter, both on television and in the newspapers in northern India the following morning. We were told that here was a man “impatient” to change India, even as the India of the here and now had one corner of it flooded out, with people dying, hundreds of thousands marooned, and one of Kerala’s lifelines – Kochi airport – shut down. The naval base in Kochi was working to bail out people 24X7, and some battalions of the Rapid Action Force were doing their best. The army that would bring in the critical mass of personnel and machinery that the situation required was still being awaited.

As the death toll touched the triple figure mark and climbing, it was one death that came to dominate the news cycle from the evening of August 16 – that of former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. A flood of coverage followed, even as the flood waters receded from national consciousness. Kerala recorded 915% excess rain on that day. One newspaper gave its entire front page to the Vajpayee death on the 17th, another overflowed with fulsome prose and a headline that read, ‘Politics Loses Its Poetry’. News television could not drag itself away from this story, with everyone who had even a nodding acquaintance with the former prime minister allowed to wring out their every memory about him in television studios, sometimes on multiple occasions, even as over 300 hundred died in flood-hit Kerala.

As The Wire piece, ‘Anatomy of a Flood: How Kerala Withstood a Calamity’ (August 21) noted, “Regular communication with the Central government and daily stock-taking meetings of the National Crisis Management Committee (NCMC) notwithstanding, the demand for more choppers was taking time. When Chengannur MLA Saji Cherian called up multiple news channels and broke down on air – explaining how most of his constituents have been stranded without food and water for three days – the scale and magnitude of the tragedy suddenly dawned on everyone. And, for the first time, it seemed things were getting out of control on August 17.”

It was only by the 18th that the full force of national effort and media attention slowly began to be paid to Kerala, helped without doubt by the news that the prime minister planned to visit the state after the Vajpayee funeral to be held that evening. Army operations had begun in right earnest the day earlier and the chief minister tweeted on the 18th that “Attempts to rescue the stranded are on a war-footing basis. 4 helicopters, 5 military boats & 65 fishing boats are part of operations. Four 100-member strong army teams have been deployed. Food is being supplied using helicopters.” Of course, for too many, this was far too little and too late, much like the Central assistance of Rs 500 crore (in addition to the earlier announcement of Rs 100 crore) that the prime minister announced after his visit and short aerial survey. The first editorial on Kerala in a national newspaper also appeared on the 18th (‘Kerala’s trauma’, The Hindu).

Prime Minister Narendra Modi conducts an aerial survey of flood-affected areas in Kerala on Saturday, August 18, 2018. Credit: PTI

By the 19th, there was a general acknowledgement that the worst was over. Ironically, it was only when this point was reached did we have a spate of stories on various aspects of the disaster and reports on other regions similarly battered, like Karnataka’s Kodagu district. This happens all too often: when media coverage is really needed to help those on the ground, it is missing. Once the worst is over, we have an information overload on the subject to the extent that people groan, “Oh no, not another Kerala story!”

The Wire, incidentally, also fell into the same trap, failing to recognise the importance of a breaking story and giving it more attention. I am not surprised by one of the responses from a reader. Ramya Mohandas describes herself as a “regular contributor” to The Wire, and follows it “because you cover the news like it should be. Bring the truth out and talk about what is important and trying to be hidden”. She was, however, disappointed that Kerala was not The Wire’s top story on its cover page of August 17, in which a piece entitled ‘Under the Weather: Narendra Modi’s Crop Insurance Scheme Veers off Target’ was given top billing, while Kerala was barely there but not there. She firmly chides us: “Do not act like yet another national media only focusing on North.”

Media coverage in Kerala, we know, was a study in contrast, as noted in The Wire piece cited earlier: “A word of praise might be due to the vibrant media in Kerala – especially news channels – for the way they covered the calamity 24/7. Many channels even had a control room operating from their studios.” Other platforms too like Newslaundry (‘#KeralaFlood: Malayalam news media shows the way’) took note of this.

So what does delayed coverage of a national disaster signify? Most obviously, of course, the urgent response from the entire country that situations like these warrant is slow in coming. Obviously given finite media space, there will always be the “squeeze” factor. After all, the media could not have ignored the Independence Day and the Vajpayee developments. The question really is how much coverage does the latter warrant? Television could even have thought of parallel tracks on Kerala, even while the discussions on Vajpayee were going on. Ditto for print and internet media. But the “take all” billing that comes with stories that have to do with the establishment, militates against such calibrated use of news space.

Equally worrying is that the vacuum created by the lack of edited, fact-checked coverage is immediately swamped by fake news of all kinds. On August 19, the Indian army was forced to call out an “Imposter wearing Army combat uniform in video spreading disinformation about rescue & relief efforts.” The two-minute video, that quickly went viral on August 18, appeared on a Facebook page called the Bharatiya Mahila Morcha Thalassery Mandalam, according to the web portal News Minute. The fatigues-clad man had railed in the tweet: “I am addressing the Kerala CM Pinarayi Vijayan. Why do you have so much animosity towards the Indian army? Is it because your minister Kodiyeri Balakrishnan doesn’t want the army to come to your state? Thousands are stranded in Chengannur. Just let us come and do our work. We will not take over your state. Don’t be scared. Aren’t you bothered about your people? We do this kind of rescue operation everywhere around the country. This isn’t anything new for us. So am begging you to just let us come to Chengannur and do our work. Let us in.”

Many other bits of fakery, such as one on the Mullaperiyar Dam about to burst, only traumatised further already panic-stricken people. As for tweets like the one put out by the eminent chartered accountant and the new appointee to the RBI Board, S. Gurumurthy: “Supreme Court judges may like to see if there is any connection between the case and what is happening in Sabarimala. Even if there is one in a million chance of a link people would not like the case decided against Ayyappan,” the less said the better. One should perhaps consider such tweets as part of the Newspeak of New India.

The Kerala floods are perhaps the first national disaster that has been bombarded by hate and polarised speech. The controversy over UAE’s offer of aid needed a civilised discussion and response, but came to be viewed through the threat-to-national-sovereignty lens that our prime show hosts have permanently fitted into their designer glasses.

The coverage of the Kerala floods provides us with a great template of how not to cover floods.

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Gauri Lankesh will not die

It’s almost a year since Gauri Lankesh, intrepid journalist and fighter of right causes, was brutally gunned down on September 5 outside her home by assailants coming under the cover of darkness. Investigations into her death have helped to unravel the web of hate and religious fanaticism that linked her assassination with those of Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare and M.M. Kalburgi – all of them courageous wielders of the pen in defence of rationalism and the power of truth (‘Suspect in Gauri Lankesh Killing Confesses to Involvement in Kalburgi Murder’, August 17). This is what Gauri Lankesh had written so presciently in the Bangalore Mirror on August 31, 2015, when she learnt about Kalburgi’s assassination: “No one knows who will gain materially by Kalburgi’s death. But it is clear that it is the right-wing fascist forces which will gain ideologically when reforming voices such as Basavanna’s and Kalburgi’s are brutally and fatally shut down. Ideas, however, never die” (excerpt is from The Way I See It, edited by Chandan Gowda).

The words hold true in her own case as well. Her ideas live on, even as the vendors of hate that eliminated her continue to search for other targets. When Umar Khalid was confronted in the heart of the capital by an assassin’s gun two days before Independence Day, it was her fate that went through his mind. “I was being reminded of what happened to Gauri Lankesh” (‘Where the Mind Is Not Without Fear’, August 13). The fear was real, but so was a sense of fearlessness fostered by people like Gauri.

A protest against the killing of journalist Gauri Lankesh. Credit: PTI/Shailendra Bhojak

The Gauri Memorial Trust is now hosting a commemorative week from August 30, which would include protests, conventions, two-wheeler jathas, and cultural evenings, across Karnataka. They welcome the participation of people from across the country in these programmes (for more information, people can contact professor V.S. Sreedhara at vssreedhara@gmail.com or 9448127571 and K.L. Ashok at klashok35@gmail.com or 9448256216/8073288365)

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There was a time when journalists who were censored accepted the inevitable, quietly swallowing any attack on their work and sense of professionalism, and carrying on as if nothing had happened. Now it seems there are some who are refusing to hunker down discreetly or go quietly into the night. On August 2, Punya Prasun Bajpai resigned as the anchor of ‘Masterstroke’, ABP TV’s popular programme, and then promptly provided the world with a forensic account of the circumstances of his exit, which included a telling description of the government’s three-tiered system of media surveillance and control (‘Exclusive: Punya Prasun Bajpai Reveals the Story Behind His Exit From ABP News’, August 6).

Now comes the story of the Mail Today cartoonist Satish Acharya (‘Why Mail Today Will No Longer Be Carrying My Cartoons’, August 12). It was a similar story against a different backdrop. First, a cartoon showing a cow had to go because the editor was not too happy with it. Then a cartoon on lynching drew the lofty response that the “India Today Group has decided not to come out with any community-based cartoons.” A cartoon on Modi led to the cartoonist being asked to “replace Modi’s character with any general BJP character.” The “Muslim” angle in one cartoon discomfited the editor; just as a “demonetisation link with 100% electrification” disturbed him, and so it goes. While Acharya’s careful listing of these attacks on his professional output allegations have been dismissed by the editor as “baseless”, but it does appear that for many editors in today’s India, censorship is the better part of valour.

Unfortunate as this is, we should take heart from the immense courage of those speaking out. Ultimately it is about pride in one’s work. Acharya with admirable directness reveals that he spoke out because “I thought I need to do justice to the cartoon space that goes with my name.” Bravo!

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Vishnu Sharma argues that Hiren Gohain’s ‘It’s Important to Know the History of the NRC Before Passing Judgment on It’ (August 8) is not only misleading but is a veiled attack on humanists and all those questioning NRC. First, he argues, Gohain’s mixing of human rights and humanism is tricky. “Human rights are a means to achieve humanism and not the other way round. There will always be the possibility of it being manipulated, but that doesn’t mean that we drop it altogether. What opponents of NRC, like me, are against is the manner it was conducted as well as the cutoff date of 1971 for identifying the ‘intruders’. His argument that because of outsiders Assam did not grow is also selective. There are other states in India, like Chhattisgarh and Odisha, which are poorly developed not because of ‘intruders’ but because of the exploitative nature of the current ‘development’ model. But unlike Assam, people of these states can’t blame it on ‘illegal migrants’. Even if Assam is made ‘intruder’ free, there is no guarantee that it will become the Shanghai of India. He calls the NRC ‘a legitimate constitutional exercise monitored by the Supreme Court.’ I don’t want to think what he would say if the SC decides to give all ‘intruders’ citizenship? ‘But can anyone in their senses claim there has been no infiltration at all?’ he asks. Mr Gohain, there will always be ‘illegal’ people who migrate to ‘developed’ places. But throwing out the already migrated is not a solution. It’s only by trying to fix uneven regional development can we do away with ‘illegal’ migration.”

People show their acknowledgment receipts after checking in their names in a draft for NRC. Credit: PTI

People show their acknowledgement receipts after checking in their names in a draft for NRC. Credit: PTI

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A string of letters on the editorial positions of The Wire have come in. Interestingly, the criticism comes from different perspectives:

Hardik Parashar: “You call yourself an independent, unbiased news journalism platform and yet your views are entirely anti-government. Please don’t mislead people into thinking that your platform serves in unbiased ways because it’s a waste of time for all of us who seek news in its true form.”

Sreeni Nair: “I follow the articles on The Wire and find them good since many of the issues on which articles and stories are put on the site are often neglected by other media houses. But I fail to understand why you do not seem to notice an issue surrounding the priests in Kerala (priests and the Church). Is it because your media house is afraid of annoying the minority community or afraid of the influence of the Church. You must have seen that the victims, in this case, are hapless poor women and by choosing to ignore such stories you seem to become one-sided in your approach, which is to remain merely anti-establishment.”

Mohammed Irfan Khan: “We the audiences have been following The Wire for its honest and fearless Journalism but the article published on June 23 against Dr Zakir Naik (‘Zakir Naik Is Anathema to Secular Democracy, His Communal Agenda Must Be Halted’) is absolutely untrue and seems to be influenced by the author’s personal beliefs about religion. The very first thing the author manages to say against Dr Zakir Naik was to comment on his attire rather than any substantial action or speech. This is clearly because there is nothing to prove against Dr Zakir Naik. Even a multicultural society such as Malaysia gave him permanent residency because they understand very well the current mindset of the government in power which is creating as much hate as it can against the minorities and depicting them as anti-nationals and terrorists.”

Write to publiceditor@thewire.in