In the immediate aftermath of actor Sridevi’s death in February 2018, almost the entire media across the country was busy covering it. From , angles were discussed for days. A Telugu TV channel even had its reporter jump into a bathtub to reenact the purported death sequence.
But this circus didn’t play out in Tamil Nadu — the state that gave Sridevi’s career a head start, that celebrated her before sending her off to Bollywood. Instead, Tamil Nadu had something entirely different to worry about.
at that time in Tamil Nadu established that except on the day of Sridevi’s death, the number of searches on Syria’s humanitarian crisis was higher than the number of searches on the actor. Incidentally smaller towns and villages showed greater interest in Syria than the major cities.
That is Tamil Nadu for you.
In fact, when former chief ministers J Jayalalithaa and M Karunanidhi died, signifying a vacuum in a political discourse dominated by their presence for decades, Tamil channels did cover the deaths right until their funerals, interspersing the coverage with pieces on their contributions. But soon, the news shifted to political developments that unfolded in the aftermath of both deaths.
Despite being known for its penchant for actors-turned politicians, Tamil Nadu holds a for the most attended funeral — an estimated 15 million people for the funeral of Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam founder and former chief minister CN Annadurai. It was a record made in an era when television channels or social media did not exist and continue to remain unbroken.
So, it comes as no surprise that the Tamil media had almost negligible coverage on the death of actor Sushanth Singh Rajput and the controversies that followed. Both the mainstream print and television media covered the death and the follow-up only as “news”.
“Honestly, not many journalists are fully aware of the case details, and that is because our readers showed no interest,” said a journalist working with Tamil daily.
Of course, the Tamil media cannot always take the high ground. Case in point is the Tamil media’s largely slanted coverage of the #MeToo movement in the state. A large section of the print media even ignored the entire issue as it played out. Some television channels discredited the survivors by . During the peak of the movement, a press conference by survivors when a section of male journalists began shouting at them.
But when it came to the spectacle surrounding Rajput’s death — and the subsequent hounding of actor Rhea Chakraborty — none of that played out on TV screens in the state.
A senior Tamil TV news editor said: “There were, of course, no debates about it. One reason is that not many in Tamil Nadu know of Sushanth Singh Rajput. There is no major connect except for the fact that he starred in and as Dhoni in a film. But beyond that, Tamil Nadu’s media culture is entirely different and does not encourage narratives driven by sensationalism or agenda.”
And it wasn’t “wilful omission”, as another senior TV editor explained. “It’s just that Tamil Nadu’s media and its audiences are not cut out the way Delhi-centric media or audiences are,” the editor said. “It is a very defining character of Tamil media.”
There have been occasional departures from this norm of not extensively covering deaths, especially celebrity deaths, like in the case of NEET aspirant Anitha’s suicide, or the Sathankulam custodial murders. But the journalist was quick to point out that in both cases, “the deaths were the focal points of larger issues”.
“Neither of it was driven by agenda. In both cases, there were actual and real developments,” he said. “The agrarian crisis and Jallikattu protests are two events for which coverage went beyond a week.” Another example, he said, is the Tamil coverage of in the Pradhan Mantri Kisan Samman Nidhi, where the focus was on issues concerning the common man.
Veteran bilingual journalist R Mani said this difference is largely because the consumption of news in Tamil Nadu is different from Delhi. “It has always been so,” he said.
AS Panneerselvan, the Hindu’s readers’ editor, said that as long as media organisations are transparent about their political positions, the audience has no problem.
“An average viewer knows what to expect from Kalaignar News or News J,” he said, referring to the news channels respectively owned by the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. “This transparency does not challenge or humiliate the intelligence of the viewer.”
Pointing to similar low-key coverage in the print media, Panneerselvan said: “Unlike tabloid editors, broadsheet media editors are aware that this entire coverage is a distracting element for the Bihar election. Editors here — who knew that they would be playing a role for a political party by pursuing similar coverage — avoided it.”
He cited the Hindu’s on Rajput’s death, calling it “factual, non-judgemental, and not a witch hunt”, while other coverage began with “abetment of suicide, theories of extortion and honey trap, now a drug issue”.
Editors from Tamil Nadu are largely drawn from diverse backgrounds. Despite being often subjected to and terms like “anti-nationals”, they tend to stand their ground. These editors said it helps that their audiences are “supportive”.
“We have been able to handle all kinds of pressures because we know our audiences. If their demands are different, we couldn’t sustain,” said a senior television editor, adding that the channel had often received overwhelming feedback on ignoring “real issues”.
“We often get messages either on social media or through phone calls on why we have not covered this particular issue in some district,” he said. “Imagine, if small towns like Thirumudivakkam and Vandavasi are more interested in the Syrian humanitarian crisis than Sridevi’s death, it shows that the demands of our audiences are entirely different. Of six debates that we have in a week, three are on actual issues of the people.”
Other channels might deal with what “the nation wants to know”, he added, but channels in Tamil Nadu remain grounded. “We are largely here to address the questions raised by people, to do some real journalism, if not fully. We will otherwise not be successful.”
R Mani agreed, and said that Tamil Nadu’s ground realities are vastly different.
“The society is secular and so are the editors,” he said. “That does not mean the opposite side is not given space in debates. In fact, the right-wing panellists are given more than enough space in debates but the anchors wouldn’t toe their line. I see the attacks on the editors and anchors as an attempt to make them toe the line. They want the editors to fall in place like their Delhi counterparts.”
Mani also admitted that this does not mean that Tamil audiences shun controversy or gossip. “It is just that they don’t obsess over it or allow it to dominate the discourse,” he said. “That said, except for a very small urban audience, not many might have even heard of Sushanth Singh Rajput.”
But while acknowledging that journalism in Tamil Nadu is better than its national contemporaries, and less agenda-driven, activist Kavitha Gajendran said that things aren’t as rosy when it comes to gender issues.
Gajendran, who is associated with the All India Democratic Women's Association in Chennai, said: “It may not be as bad as what happened with Rhea Chakraborty, but the Tamil media also doesn’t like strong women. It was very evident in the #MeToo coverage. The kind of patriarchal approach that exists within the Tamil media does show its ugly head when it comes to handling strong women.”
She added: “Misogyny exists in writing or covering women who are outspoken and political. Tamil media could do better for itself if it was more sensitive when it comes to women.”
Independent media is on the frontlines of the coronavirus crisis in India, as elsewhere, telling stories that need to be told and asking questions that need answers. Support independent journalists by paying to keep news free. Subscribe to Newslaundry today.