‘Covid terrorist’, ‘killer corona’: Karnataka’s news channels have been alarmist and irresponsible on Covid
Shambhavi Thakur

‘Covid terrorist’, ‘killer corona’: Karnataka’s news channels have been alarmist and irresponsible on Covid

Social media users have pointed fingers at the over-the-top coverage for creating a culture of fear.

By Tejas Dayananda Sagar

Published on :

In July, a family of three died in Karnataka’s Dharwad. According to reports, the 36-year-old man killed himself after poisoning his wife and four-year-old daughter. The man’s colleagues had reportedly tested positive for Covid and his daughter had developed a fever. A note alleged that he was worried he might have transmitted Covid to his daughter.

At least six people have died by suicide in the state, Bangalore Mirror reports, after testing positive for Covid or developing similar symptoms. The state saw a spike in cases from July onwards, registering about 3,500 cases a day. While doctors have emphasised that testing positive is not a death sentence, fingers have been pointed at the Kannada media for being alarmist in its coverage of the pandemic.

“Kannada TV news channels are trying to scare people for TRPs,” said Supriya Rao Pejawara, a Bengaluru-based software engineer. “They are creating a toxic environment.”

A survey of some of these channels in the last week of July corroborates her claim. Tickers often used phrases like “killer corona”, “corona bhootha” (ghost), and “corona hemmari” (deadly).

On July 27, for example, Public TV interviewed a man who initially tested negative for Covid but a rapid test later confirmed that he had contracted the virus. Public TV chose to flash the words “Deadly Corona” on the screen, complete with a skull and crossbones.

In a bulletin on July 29, helpfully titled “Big Exposé”, Public TV’s anchor Aravinda Sethurao was speculating on what the Covid situation will be like in the state in the next 60 days, until September 30.

“Will there be warfare?” he asked. “Should we think it will be warfare? Should we think cases will decrease, or will it create hell in Karnataka?” He also referred to Covid as a “ferocious demon”.

This was a pattern followed by Digvijay News too, which had a programme on July 24 titled “Karnataka Deadly Danger”, a day after TV9 Kannada proclaimed that a “thunder and tsunami of coronavirus” had hit Karnataka.

Then there was Suvarna News, the channel that once conducted a “sting operation” on “illegal Bangladeshis” in Bengaluru, leading to the razing of homes of over 700 poor families. Most of the families were Indian nationals and the demolition wasn’t authorised, but that didn’t stop Suvarna from congratulating itself for its “journalism”.

In times of Covid, Suvarna News reported on the death of a bakery owner from Covid in Bengaluru. The channel showed images of the bakery, its name clearly visible, alongside a picture of the bakery owner with his eyes blurred — but clearly identifiable, which is in violation of government guidelines on reporting on Covid deaths.

More egregiously, Suvarna News claimed that Pakistan was silently sending “Covid terrorists” into Kashmir.

‘People need to switch off their TVs’

As Shreyas Bhardwaj, a Mysuru-based student, said, “Ever since the pandemic began, Kannada TV news has been scaring the lights out of people, to a degree that is just scary.”

Cynthia Stephen, a Bengaluru-based independent journalist, told Newslaundry that it isn’t just Covid. “Other news items in Kannada news channels are not reported in a responsible manner,” she said. “I feel that there is too much hype and sensationalism and very little content in what they do...They are fooling people and wasting time. There is no proper content. They don't bring quality experts in the newsroom for debates. They don't follow the mandate."

She added, "Actually I feel that people need to switch off their TVs and start protesting.”

Only sponsored programmes have professional or quality content, Stephen said, when the channel then invites a doctor to speak about an issue. “This is not the way the public expects a news channel to behave. They should have the capacity to draw quality experts and sort of build a body of knowledge in the public so that the public can make informed choices.”

She also said that most of the channels don’t have research teams who compile “solid statistical matter to present material in a more informed way”. Standards have not been raised; if anything, she believes that their quality of journalism has fallen further after the pandemic.

“In print media, we don't see this type of havoc happening,” Stephen said. ”The way print journalists are treating this pandemic and the way TV channels are doing it are on completely different levels."

Police high-handedness

The Bengaluru police has waded into the social media storm over the matter, urging people not to panic or spread fake news.

Bhaskar Rao, the Bengaluru police commissioner who was recently transferred, even pulled up individual social media users. When a Twitter user who posted about how 97 percent of patients on ventilator died at a Bengaluru hospital, Rao responded by urging the crime branch to “take further action” against those posting fake news.

Yet this isn’t “fake news”; it had been reported by the Indian Express and the Times of India.

Dr Sylvia Karpagam, a Bengaluru-based public health expert and a member of the Campaign for Ethical Media Reporting group, told Newslaundry that there is a growing culture of arresting people who question the government.

“Journalists or citizens can ask why people are dying or why there are no ventilators and this is not a reason to threaten someone,” she pointed out. “Also, the police should go after the hundreds of virulent messages targeting minorities and spreading fake news on social media, or they should go after Kannada TV news channels who are spreading horror and fake news of the Covid situation in Bengaluru.”

A public health expert told Newslaundry, on the condition of anonymity, that Rao should have carried out a private investigation if he believed a piece of news was fake — not publicly admonish someone on Twitter. This sends out a wrong signal, the expert said, that “if you question, you will face the music”.

“Most people in India are scared of the cops because they are thugs in uniform. By doing this, a hundred other correct news items will not be published because of fear in dealing with these ‘thugs’,” the expert said. “[Rao] is known to be a good cop and he worked well in the Covid situation but looks like they all buckled under pressure now. The new police commissioner, Kamal Pant, should take action at these Kannada news channels which are creating a nuisance.”

(The author is a staff reporter at 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.)


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