Television & Tragedy

{Originally written for The Hindu Metroplus} The past few weeks have been hard on Chennai, with floods ravaging the city, and strippin...

{Originally written for The Hindu Metroplus}

The past few weeks have been hard on Chennai, with floods ravaging the city, and stripping its citizens of possessions, homes, and livelihoods. While a part of the blame with respect to the massive amount of damage that the flood has caused, no doubt, belongs to poor urban planning, these were no ordinary rains. It was bizarre, freak weather, the kind that appears once in a hundred years, and it took mainstream news channels a good couple of days to realise that these floods were a far greater disaster than Aamir Khan’s comments on intolerance. 

Rajdeep Sardesai, the (very) popular news anchor and consulting editor with the India Today group was the first to speak up about the national media’s indifference towards not only the floods in Chennai, but also the fact that events in and around the national capital get far more coverage than what happens in South India. “I just feel, at the moment, that the focus of news channels must be on Chennai, to try and help people”, he concluded. 

Around the same time that Sardesai had released the video, the national media channels came in droves. I had been among those who were irked that the city was being ignored, but I suppose one must be careful for what they wish for. When I started watching the coverage (I was among the lucky few who had power for a good part of the rains), my exasperation only increased. It appeared as if every news channel was competing against each other for the most tasteless coverage of the calamity. Microphones were shoved into the faces of families which were only now trying to come to terms with the colossal damage that the rains had done to their lives. “What have you lost?” asked reporters briskly, and pressed for specifics as the camera panned to the family’s apparent anguish. 

If only Arnab spent as much time understanding empathy as he did in perfecting this "pensive thinker" pose. 

Every channel had its own tragedy: If it wasn't a household which had lost everything in the face of their daughter’s wedding, it was an orphanage that was stranded with no access to food or water. Some channels took the trouble of creating video montage sequences of the flooding, punctuated with shots of people in grief, set to sad, funereal music, which they played every five minutes. Chennai, they declared, was devastated, and there is nothing but trauma here. 

Although there is no doubt with regard to the vast desolation and suffering that the rains have caused to the city, I found it surprising that no channel, in its initial coverage of the rains, was particularly interested in covering the resilience and uprising of the people of Chennai, and the way social media was used to mobilise help and resources across various areas. People opened up their homes to complete strangers who were stranded in the area, and a staggering number of people stepped out of their houses, braving the storm to help in rescue and volunteering operations.

News Channels have a special place in Indian television - after all, it’s never just news. Every news channel has come to believe that it is the emancipator of the people, with hosts who are convinced that they’re human courthouses which have the authority to question, and pass judgement on the nation’s Executive. While Arnab Goswami striking terror in the hearts of politicians isn’t a bad thing for our country, the way both natural catastrophes and man made attacks are reported on screen, has to change. It is imperative that reporters learn to be sensitive when interviewing and talking to victims, and understand that empathy is far more important than TRPs. 

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  1. Very valid observations that are shares by sensible people. Unfortunately, responsible journalism will remain shadowed by tasteless shows that masquerade as news updates, because there are apathetic people running them and watching them.


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