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Kerala’s news channels show how to cover a disaster responsibly

EPA-EFE/Prakash Elamakkara
Heroes don’t always wear capes.
Published This article is more than 2 years old.

On Aug. 14, Cheruthoni in Kerala’s Idukki district resembled a ghost town. Well, almost. The inhabitants of the locality, home to a dam whose shutters were opened for the first time in 26 years, were asked to move out, and the only people remaining were 30 policemen and 35 journalists.

“We survived on just water for close to 48 hours till the night of Aug. 15 when we managed to get some gruel prepared,” says Anish, who was reporting for the News 18 Kerala network. “It was a panic situation because so many buildings, including the one next to where we were staying, collapsed in the landslide. Those four days without power, without fuel for our vehicles, were a test in endurance, but also taught us the importance of being there. To tell the rest of Kerala the real situation on the ground.”

“We survived on just water for close to 48 hours till the night of Aug. 15.”

There have been many heroes of Kerala’s battle against its worst floods in over 90 years. The government of Kerala, the people of the state, and its Malayalam television media. And if there was one aspect that distinguished Malayalam media from the way national counterparts cover disasters, it was that the focus was solely on reportage. As Jency Jacob, managing editor of BOOM, a fact-checking portal, wrote on his Facebook wall, “This took me back to an era when reporters and anchors were not the story. They covered the story.”

What has stood out is the manner in which the crisis has been reported on, eschewing theatrics and mixing reportage with playing the role of samaritans.

“We have a very vigilant society in Kerala that criticises and guides us,” says Romy Mathew, senior coordinating editor of Manorama News. “In the earlier instance of floods, a TV reporter plunging into the waters was disapproved of by viewers. Our intention was to do journalism with real compassion, focusing on facts. There is no place for dramatics in television reportage in Kerala.”

For a change, reporters on Indian television got air time at prime time.

To underline its commitment to the cause, Asianet News even stopped cutting to ad breaks for two days lest it be construed that channels were making money riding on high TRPs (television rating points). But the content spoke for itself. For instance, apart from reporting on death and distress, News 18 Kerala had a good news band as well. This band highlighted the receding of water levels, the restarting of road transport, and the opening up of critical roads and bridges—important positive information that people could use.

On Aug. 20, News18 even began an initiative, “Open your heart Open your Home,” asking people to accommodate a family at their home till their own homes were safe to return to. During the live show, the channel received 90 calls.

The panel discussions were done away with and, for a change, reporters on Indian television got air time at prime time. And apart from giving information, they were also using their contacts to provide relief and coordinating efforts.

“Initially, the information was that the hilly areas in the north were affected. After our teams were moved there, we had to shift half of them to central Kerala because flooding and landslides were reported from Munnar, Pathanamthitta, Chengannur. There was very little time; road connectivity was an issue,” says Suresh Kumar, senior coordinating editor of Asianet News.

Mercifully, there was no brag journalism at disaster time. A national TV channel reporter observed that there was no “‘We are the first TV channel or the only TV channel to get you these visuals’ kind of narrative by the reporters on the ground. The reporters were non-screechy, not in your face.”

Kerala media had learnt its lessons from the initial rounds of floods in July and the first week of August. When a media team from the Mathrubhumi channel had gone to flood-hit areas near Vaikom last month, the country boat carrying them capsized. A stringer and a car driver died while the rest were rescued. The episode made newsrooms very cautious, and they decided against pushing their crews on the ground and making unrealistic demands.

“We had given our crews boots and life jackets after the Vaikom incident. We had given clear instructions not to take personal risks. Safety of our teams was of paramount importance,” says Mathew.

For many journalists, it was also about putting duty before self.

For many journalists, it was also about putting duty before self. Their own homes were under water or their relatives were stuck in flood waters, but there was no time to rush to help oneself. Suresh Kumar says his mother was stuck at their home in flood-hit Ranni in Pathanamthitta district with water inside their home. All he could do by working the phones from Thiruvananthapuram was to ensure she was moved to a relative’s home.

All of Kerala owes its gratitude to its media, says Rekha Menon, a talk-show host. “How many times have we seen TV channels open up their own help desk on which scores of distress calls came in and they were able to help people out? They also proactively ensured fake news and rumours did not spread by ensuring there were reporters in just every part of Kerala reporting facts,” says Menon.

Another person who has covered himself with glory in this crisis is chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan for his calm and composure while being at the wheel. The chief minister’s office and the disaster management cell were the one-point stop for all coordination and information flow, and for streamlining rescue and relief efforts.

What also helped was the local-body governance apparatus in Kerala that enabled many at the panchayat level to take decisions on the spot on what worked best for the affected people. This decentralisation of decision-making also ensured against panic and was a logical way of scaling up requirements to the district level, where relief material was being collected.

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