Why are journalists showing grisly visuals of Covid funerals?

It’s the reality, that’s why. And no, the foreign media isn’t singling India out in reporting from cremation and burial grounds.

WrittenBy:Tanishka Sodhi
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“Can we speak a little later?” a photojournalist for the New York Times asked when we called him late Monday afternoon. “I’m in the midst of shooting a cremation.”

As the Covid death toll continues to rise, journalists, Indian and foreign, are reporting from cremation grounds and graveyards, seeking to convey the devastation that the second wave of the pandemic has unleashed in India.

The intention, several journalists we spoke with explained, is mainly to put a human face to the cold numbers of death but also to ensure the scale and gravity of the horror isn’t hidden through data manipulation and media management by state and central governments.

A section of the Indian commentariat, online and offline, isn’t quite convinced, however, alleging that journalists doing such coverage are “behaving like vultures”, “disrespecting Hindu culture”, “plotting to undermine India” and Narendra Modi.

Why, the critics and the trolls demand to know, did the foreign press not show similar scenes of death and devastation when Covid was ripping through, say, the United States and Britain?

Well, they did.

As deaths from Covid surged in New York last year, for example, Reuters, Washington Post, CNN, New York Times, BBC, Telegraph showed drone footage of caskets being buried in mass graves. There were similar reports from graveyards in Brazil, Italy and the United Kingdom.

India isn’t being singled out.

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“This is the truth. We are documenting the truth and bearing witness to it,” said a reporter for a British media organisation. “It is very easy to lament the coverage and blame the messenger and far more difficult to ask for accountability. But nobody is making things up, it is the ground reality. We need people to understand the gravity of what is unfolding right now.”

The journalist pointed out that mass graves in New York and Brazil received considerable media coverage even though the situation there wasn’t as dire as it’s in India now. “I don’t think there was anybody in the West even in the worst of the Covid pandemic who was a walking dead in the street because they couldn’t get access to oxygen,” the reporter said. “Our job is also to give voice to people who don’t have it. And at a lot of these crematoriums people are coming up to us and expressing their grief and anger at what they have had to go through.”

Indeed, the journalists who are facing criticism for reporting from funeral grounds have largely taken care to respect the privacy of grieving relatives, refraining from shoving mics in their faces even when they didn’t want to talk.

Moreover, Indian media platforms such as the Caravan, Mojo Story, Dainik Bhaskar, Lallantop, India Today, NDTV, and Indian Express have been reporting from funeral grounds as well, in a similar manner and for the same reasons as the foreign media.

Mahesh Langa, a correspondent for the Hindu in Gujarat, argued that such reporting is imperative to show that governments are hiding the gravity of what’s unfolding. “There is a massive mismatch between what is being recorded by the government and the number of people dying,” said Langa, who has shown how Gujarat is seeing many more Covid deaths than the state health department is reporting to the public. “Such stories help point out the discrepancies. It is also important to hold a mirror to society about what is happening.”

Gujarat isn’t alone in underreporting Covid deaths. Newslaundry reported last week how crematoriums and graveyards in Bhopal alone are reporting far more deaths than the Shivraj Singh Chouhan government is counting for all of Madhya Pradesh.

Dainik Bhaskar also called out the Madhya Pradesh government for hiding Covid deaths. "The government’s data on deaths is a lie,” the Hindi paper headlined its top frontpage report on April 16, accompanying it with a photograph of burning funeral pyres at a ghat in Bhopal.

CK Vijayakumar, multimedia producer at the Caravan, offered another reason for why such reporting is not only ethical, but necessary. “In our country there’s a tendency to hero-worship political leaders and defend them, no matter how poor their performance,” he explained. “These videos may not change people’s minds, but they can make people question such stances. It is hard to refute so many images coming from cremation grounds across Delhi. Facts and images make a strong impact on the news consumer.”

Vijayakumar, who helped produce a video showing pyres last week that was widely watched, said it was a difficult story to cover. “We had to think through it deeply, about why we were doing it. The larger issue is that there seems to be a complete breakdown of the healthcare system and complete negligence by the political class,” he said. “There’s a myth among a certain section of the population that coronavirus isn’t real. I think these images and interviews with relatives of the dead have the power to burst these myths.”

A reporter with a news website who has been covering the Covid crisis, including from funeral grounds in Delhi, pointed out that there’s an “unofficial ban” on the media entering hospitals. So, reporting from funeral grounds is a way of showing the reality.

“The government is being exposed at cremation grounds,” the journalist said. “The dead bodies and cremation workers tell us the reality. If the government could they would have banned the media from cremation grounds as well. This is a failure of the government, there is no doubt about it. People are struggling, dying to get basic healthcare facilities. In the last 15 days, the government has been mute, deaf, and blind. I can’t back down from reporting on the situation.”

A photojournalist with a global news agency echoed this view. “Until you go to graveyards and crematoriums, you won’t get the measure of how big this tragedy is,” he said. “We were doing this last year as well. I was taking pictures in graveyards, cremation grounds, hospitals. I don’t understand why people weren’t creating such a hue and cry then but are now.”

Jatin Anand, a correspondent for the daily Hindu who has been reporting on the capital’s Covid crisis, compared reporting from funeral grounds to filing chargesheets. “You see what exactly the charges are in a chargesheet, evaluate them, and the courts usually throw most of the charges out,” he said. “This is exactly the case with reporting from cremation and burial grounds. It doesn’t matter what figures governments give you, this is the endpoint where you can verify it all.”

Many of the journalists who have reported from funeral grounds have faced vicious trolling online. “Barkha Dutt live reporting from Smashan Bhumi is like the vulture waiting for his prey to die,” read 11 identical tweets posted over the past three days, accompanied by pictures of the Mojo Story editor at a funeral ground.

In response, Dutt told the trolls their old “trick to attack the messenger won’t work”.

Yogita Limaye of BBC whose coverage of the Covid crisis has made impact nationally and internationally has faced similar abuse as have her colleagues.

Anupam Nath’s pictures of funerals have been used by national and foreign publications. And he won’t stop doing his work, the Associated Press photojournalist, said, no matter what the critics and the trolls might say. Such work is simply too important, not least least because the unfolding disaster must be documented for future generations, he explained. “It’s a sad thing, but it is a human crisis right now. We are seeing lines of dead bodies, and sometimes we are required to show such visuals to convey the seriousness of the situation,” he added. “We should record for history. If no one had taken photos of the Hiroshima bombing, we would not have realised how bad it was. You can’t visualize until you see the situation.”


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