It seems to be the season of floods. Last week the National Emergency Response Centre (NERC), released figures on the natural disasters in the monsoons so far. The toll is huge.
Not just in terms of human life lost, and suffering, but also the animal life lost, agriculture impacted, and life impacted. In none of these areas are things going back to normal, immediately. It is a long process of recovery and rebuilding.
Looking at the NERC report on the floods, and gauging mainstream media, and social media responses to the flood, one thing is clear, some floods occupy more media space than other floods.
While it may be argued that Kerala’s floods being the worst in almost a century, naturally occupied headlines, it is also true that some states by their very nature are black holes for the media.
What is more is that these floods are an annual occurrence in India, as is the loss of lives, livelihood and livestock. Every year, peoples lives get disrupted, and every year they put it back again.
Poverty Due to Floods
In many ways, the poverty in many of these states can be explained by the floods. They are forever putting their lives back together again, there is no room to move ahead. It almost seems like parts of India are permanently in the relief and rehabilitation zone, with very little chance to rebuild.
And, this is what the media ignores on a perpetual basis. Some pointed questions have to be raised. And those aren’t why are there floods; the simple answer, because there are extremely heavy rains.
The more basic question that is ignored are: why are so many people dying in the floods? Why are so many homes falling? Why is this happening every year? In ignoring the floods across media dark areas of India, the national media fails terribly.
One of the things that we saw with the Kerala floods, was this immense outpouring of national consciousness. Leave aside the fringe haters, by and large people opened their hearts and wallets. The Kerala chief minister's relief fund received well over Rs 1,000 crores in donations. And this does not include the tonnes of materials given by ordinary citizens to help their co-citizens in another part of the country.
People are helping to rebuild homes, and business, factories and handlooms. And, without the initial media thrust, maybe, so much would not have been activated and collected.
Media And Business
News media must be more than a business. As part of the aggregation that makes up the fourth pillar of democracy, it has a responsibility that goes beyond being a mere business. That is why it has a special status in the structure of modern society. By their very nature, newspapers tend to be localised to a certain city or geography.
While papers may have various editions, those are restricted to certain cities. Some amount of news from one region may permeate into the edition in another city, and there is a certain amount of news that one consumes from across the country.
TV news on the other hand, tends to have the advantage of beaming down on the entire geography. But, given the nature and costs of running news operations, the news on ‘national’ news channels tends to be restricted.
It is usually politics from Delhi, and business and Bollywood from Mumbai. Regional channels cover state news. As such most TV news viewers do not get a coherent view of India, as most of the country is ignored by national news channels.
In fact, given the way most of our TV channels are going, there is less of news and more of opinions on the channels. In the great rush to catch a rapidly diminishing audience base, broadcast news picks up from the best of soap operas and regale the audience with daily skirmishes with a recurring cast.
The topics chosen are deliberately provocative, and mostly irrelevant, and set up people with polar opposite views to duel on camera, in a debate with no conclusion. In this mad chase for eyeballs, the Nation is left behind.
The reason why we got to hear about Kerala floods is three-fold – there are many journalists from the state, there is a very strong presence of Malayalis on social media, and there is a very large diaspora from Kerala that was not affected by the floods, and could relay messages of help. And, people helped.
PayTM raised 30 crores, from its 12 lakh users in less than a week, for Kerala relief. The rest of the states may not have the same diaspora advantages that Kerala does, and that is where TV news has a role to play.
At one level a media lens on states suffering from natural disasters will help open new avenues of funding and volunteers, helping the already overstretched state, and the centre.
At the second level, consistent coverage of natural disasters will hopefully lead to a vital question being asked, and that is – why are there so many casualties year after year. Why does disaster planning not include a zero-casualty policy, or why are homes that are rebuilt with state help, wash away the next time it floods.
The news media’s role as a watchdog and as a transmitter of ‘national’ news has fallen by the wayside, and maybe if it focused on that, it may start getting people watching the news.
Harini Calamur writes on politics, gender and her areas of interest are the intersection of technology, media, and audiences.
First Published: IST