The night of `live’ terrors

IN Media Practice | 06/01/2005
The night of `live’ terrors



Three Malayalam channels were reporting on the tsunami developments in such a hysterical manner as to whip up a scare wave which had people in the entire area from Thiruvananthapuram to Chavakkad on the run



N P Chekkutty


As the tsunami waves hit coastlines on the morning of December 26, Sunday, millions of people all over the world were glued to their television sets as the trickle of information that came over the tube was so vital for many of us.  As a person living in Delhi with a family back home in Kerala -- one of three southern states severely hit by the waves along with Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu—and experiencing the agonies of the night, I think the visual media coverage of the whole incident left much to be desired and there seems to be an urgent need to initiate a debate within the media and also among the policymakers on the matter of information dissemination in calamity situations. The experiences of the week immediately after the tragedy suggests that the media ought to evolve a policy on how to report calamities of such immense proportions and affecting a large number of people across such a wide geographical area, as also how to tackle the issue of dissemination of disinformation, as it has been the experience in the wake of the recent tragedy. 


Let me explain my point with my own personal experience: As the first waves hit, the news was not so alarming for any of us, as in the coastal regions of Kerala and Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh tidal waves are a normal experience especially in the monsoon seasons. When I talked to many of my friends an relatives living in Kerala, most of them in the vicinity of the sea, there was not much of an alarm on the first day. But 24 hours later, on Monday night, the three Malayalam channels operating in Kerala, were reporting on the tsunami developments in such a hysterical  manner that they were evidently whipping up a scare wave with the  oft-repeated rumours of the possibility of another wave  of tsunamis hitting the coasts once  again, triggering a massive exodus of people from the coastal belt in the entire region.


It was unbelievable to watch the way the channels went ahead reporting on the new threat of  tsunamis at their 10.30 p.m. news on Monday , enthusiastically focussing their cameras on the people who started moving out of their beachside homes and running for cover with their little possessions, their families in tow even as they kept on repeating the rumours that  water has been  rising in various  parts of the state till quite early into the day. At 10.30 p.m. news they said the waves would hit in just one hour, and then I could see the same reports being scrolled over the screen even two hours later in the night.


The next day, newspapers reported the horrors of the night of televised rumours when people in the entire area from Thiruvananthapuram to Chavakkad on the Trichur coast had been running away form the coast without any vehicles, with no support from any official agencies only because the rumours first reported at the 10.30 p.m. news remained in the air till early next day.  There was no reason why such rumour mongering should continue unhindered all night, because there was no official warning from any corner that night. What is important to note is that these rumours went on air in spite of the fact that there was no official announcement about any threat from tsunami waves on Monday night and the Indian Meteorological department also denied issuing any such warning.


The entire episode of this sordid drama took place on the basis of an unconfirmed report which spoke about a fresh tsunami waves following the after-tremors and an interview with Dr Bhaba, director of the Centre for Earth Sciences Studies, Thiruvananthapuram, who called for caution as there was every possibility of fresh tremors in the wake of a major earthquake. In the irresponsible and high-decibel manner in which our channels report, this call for caution by a scientist was developed into a major alarm by the television reporters, who were giving live coverage of the people leaving the coasts from all parts of the state. Unmindful of the consequences and implications, they were also competing with each other repeating the rumours spreading in coastal areas that sea level was rising without even an effort at cross-checking or resorting to any scientific or official machinery for substantiating their claims. On Asianet, a widely distributed channel, I saw the announcement about sea level rise repeated quite a number of times till late into the night even as they went on with other normal late-night programming after predicting deluge in the night news. Kairali News was another channel I watched, and they too were equally irresponsible in their reporting about the imminent waves hitting the beaches.


As the channels went on terrorizing their viewers dishing out the deluge mania in between commercial breaks, there were others who made an equally fast buck that night - they were the thieves, who, according to newspaper reports the next day, had a roaring  business in the entire coast line on the night of December 27. Mathrubhumi, a well respected Malayalam newspaper, gave reports on the huge damage done by the channels who went out to report the mayhem live, and in the pocket cartoon of the day,  the paper had shown a man throwing out his television set, calling it the real tsunami to hit his household. Many readers must have shared that view.


Then on December 30, when the Home Ministry in Delhi came out with its half-baked warning of the second tsunami which was laughed off by the Science and Technology Minister, the Malayalam channels showed they did not learn any lessons from their previous faux paus. The Kerala Chief Minister who was in a meeting of the cabinet came out, gave a warning about the threat and soon it was again followed up by the television channels who gave out the alert literally in Red Letter, in full screen even as the national channels like NDTV were giving out the same information in a much more subdued manner, without adding to the alarm among the people. It is sad that these regional channels who speak the language of the local people who are affected by these calamities, failed to appreciate the real implications of such an irresponsible behaviour on their part.


Of course, the catastrophes of the past week are unusual because the tsunami is new to our experiences as the Prime Minister said in defense of the faux paus committed by his own Home Minister who bungled on the warning on December 30. The government is now trying to learn their lessons from the failures, what about the media? There is no comprehensive review or a sustained analysis of the way we reported the national calamity live. There were criticisms on the way BBC and CNN went ahead with cashing in on the Asian tragedy, and the insensitivity they showed towards the Asian victims vis a vis the World Trade Center disaster, etc, but there is no sincere attempts so far on the part of the media here to have an introspection on how we dealt with our own tragedy and how our live television channels across the country handled the situation.


Ultimately, live television is here to stay and will keep reporting on whether it is death or destruction, come what may,  and we will see our own people forced to scramble out of their beds in the dead of night simply because someone in the newsroom heard some rumours and thought it fit to report. So some kind of a commonly accepted norm is now urgently called for on how to report such developments, how to treat warnings from official and non-official agencies, etc. Even in weather forecast for fishermen, the weather department makes use of their own yardsticks with different measures for different levels of perceived danger. But in media, we are still to evolve any such yardsticks for our guidance.


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