#KeralaFlood: Delhi took time to wake up, but social media was on the ball

'National media's coverage is more party, politics-centric. There is little care about the plight of the people.'

WrittenBy:Cherry Agarwal
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Torrential rains have been ravaging Kerala for more than a week now and all districts, except Kasargod, have been put on red alert. Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan has now said that the death toll has reached 324.

The rising water levels of the Periyar river owing to heavy rains as well as the opening of shutters of 80 dams, including Mullaperiyar, Cheruthoni, part of Idukki reservoir, and Idamalayar, have worsened the situation in the state. It is the worst case of flooding that the state has seen in a century, according to the Kerala CM. In parts of Kerala — Alappuzha, Ernakulam, Thrissur and Pathanamthitta — roads are completely submerged; flight operations at the Kochi airport have been suspended till August 26. Nearly two lakh people are currently living in relief camps, with massive rescue operations being put into place, including efforts by all three wings of the armed forces.

Meanwhile, it was the death of former Prime Minister and Bharatiya Janata Party stalwart Atal Bihari Vajpayee that claimed Delhi media’s attention. Vajpayee was a three-time prime minister, 12-time Parliamentarian, a statesman, and more, so there is no denying the impact of such a loss on the news cycle. But in all this, the plight of the people, the scale of the calamity, and the deluge that Kerala is facing was eclipsed, at least till Vajpayee’s cremation was completed yesterday.

This is not to say that there was no coverage. On August 17, a day after Vajpayee passed away, at least three leading English dailies had Kerala floods on their respective front pages. As for TV news, short news packages and briefs were played. But mainstream television media’s coverage of Kerala did little to clearly show the scale of the disaster, to help raise awareness about relief support available, or to even show how people had come together to aid those facing nature’s fury. The coverage more likely seemed like lip service to a disaster that has left a state reeling. Even today’s papers couldn’t stop playing hopscotch with Kerala floods. Hindustan Times, for example, has at least six pages of its Delhi edition primarily dedicated to Vajpayee. But Kerala woes, which did make it to its jacket cover, was then tucked away to page 10. Going through some of the prominent leading English dailies, it seemed like Kerala floods got its due prominence only on the front page of The Telegraph. As for TV news: Kerala floods made it to primetime for at least some channels like India Today.

In the absence of a more concentrated media attention, social media has become the platform for raising awareness about the deluge in Kerala. Twitterati, not just journalists, have come forward and are leading relief initiatives, including raising funds, collecting medical supplies, live tweeting status of rescue operations, raising awareness, sharing information of those stranded and coordinating evacuation, location of collection centres, accessibility and roads blocked, support available and more.

NK Bhoopesh, executive editor of The Newsrupt, which has its headquarters in Kochi, spoke to Newslaundry about social media’s role in Kerala floods, the tyranny of distance and mainstream media’s apathy, as well as the challenges journalists are currently facing in Kerala.

“Kerala is facing one of the worst disasters in history. More than 350 people are dead, lakhs of them are in rescue centres; rescue operations are still continuing after three days and thousands are still stranded. So while a catastrophic disaster has taken place, the national media is completely oblivious,” Bhoopesh said.

He added that the coverage of the Kerala floods is only a testimony to the pattern followed by national media. “It is a pattern — if something happens in South India, especially in smaller states like Kerala, it is very convenient for them to ignore it.” He also said that for the national media “everything happens in and around Delhi. It comes very naturally to the national media.” Speaking about the national media’s priorities and the possible reason for the lack of due prominence given to Kerala floods, the editor said, “National media’s coverage is more party, politics-centric. There is little care about the plight of the people.” As for the coverage being done by local media, Bhoopesh added that Malayam newspapers and channels have been running stories regularly despite challenges such as accessibility or poor communication channels. He also gave credit to Kerala media houses for their contributions.

“Accessibility and communication are the biggest challenges facing journalists covering the Kerala floods,” said Bhoopesh. He added that there are many places “we can’t even venture to. Television reporters are facing huge risks because in some of the areas the roads are completely submerged, national highways are blocked. So travelling and speaking to people itself is an enormous challenge.”

Speaking about the role played by social media, Bhoopesh said: “Continuous sharing of information—whom to contact for rescue and evacuation, and whom to approach for basic amenities—can be seen on social media platforms, including Facebook.”

Another Kochi-based journalist, who did not wish to be named, agreed with Bhoopesh about the national media’s coverage of the situation in Kerala. The journalists stated: “The situation is actually graver than what it seems.”

Speaking of the challenges facing journalists, the same Kochi reporter said, “Travelling is an issue, especially for television reporters who have to go to the remotest areas in such conditions to get visuals.” Explaining from personal experience, the reporter added, “I myself went to a place where even a relief camp got flooded and the water level was rising at an alarming pace. But undertaking the risk is the journalist’s choice.” The journalist also commended the role social media is playing in rescue efforts.

Anil Kumar T, a senior reporter with The New Indian Express, Kochi, also described the challenges that Kerala-based journalists were facing. He said, “Transportation is the main problem. You can’t move from one place to another. We have to visit the place before publishing a report —normally this is how we cover. But we can’t do this now since you either need a boat, otherwise airlift is the only other alternative. We are unable to visit the relief camps and talk to those who have taken refuge. So accessibility is the main challenge for us, apart from the risk associated.”

Kumar added that in such a scenario, journalists have to depend on secondary sources making the reliability of information another challenge.

As for the national media, Kumar disagrees with Bhoopesh. “Most of the reporters are in the field, and are trying their best to publish what the people are facing,” he said, adding: “Media isn’t suppressing this [Kerala flood] news.” Giving an example of a local reporter, who went into chest-deep waters to cover the scale of flooding, he said, “When the reporter entered chest-deep waters to cover the flood the criticism was ‘reporters did not go to the hospitals during Nipah, why are they creating such drama now’.” So despite the reporter’s effort, he was still criticised, Kumar pointed out as he explained why criticism of the media is often regarded as invalid.

Newslaundry also spoke to the journalist about the role being played by social media. “There have been instances where social media is being used to circulate fake news — against with even the CM has warned — but it is also playing a great role in helping with rescue operations.” He added that it was due to one such effort that a pregnant lady was rescued from a flood-hit area. Clearly, a strong regional media and social media platforms helped fill the vacuum of information, even as Delhi media took its time to start gauging the full import of Kerala floods.

Background image credit: The Newsrupt


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