TV9 brings you the floods, live!

BY Padmaja Shaw| IN Media Practice | 08/10/2009
One saw several reporters in waist deep water, waving mics at people for sound bites. Another reporter on a boat waved the mic for bites from a person in neck-deep water!
PADMAJA SHAW says TV channels in Andhra Pradesh are repeat offenders of a cardinal sin in news – do not draw attention to thyself.

Disasters bring out predictable responses from political opponents. The incumbent government is always wrong. It fails by every yardstick. All political forces hide behind great concern for public welfare while undermining each other's achievements and image. But then, political parties and media feel that they are entitled to engage in 'Monday morning quarter-backing' and fix blame wherever they choose to. The news consumers' expectation from media, however, is that they also report accurately on advance warning, rescue and relief information.

The ubiquitous presence of Telugu channels at various locations of the floods in Andhra Pradesh was initially heartening to see. As the intensity of the disaster dawned on the channels, however, the scramble for ratings once again took precedence over responsible reporting.

From the afternoon of the first day itself TV9 began claiming that the government has failed miserably and TV9 reporters themselves were in the forefront of rescue operations! The channel kept repeating footage of a reporter helping a family get into a boat by holding their infant. What must have been a simple humane gesture is quickly turned into promo material for the channel. This footage was repeated a number of times.

The channel was sanctimoniously scrolling quotes from a Telugu poet, urging people to set aside self-interest and help one's neighbour while every bit of reporting by it was being hawked for glory. On 5 October, the channel began to split screen and show its own relief operations along with the news coverage.

Disaster research from all over the world shows that international aid amounts to  just less than 4% of the effort while the local people helping each other, NGOs with local groups and the state machinery itself play a major role in mitigating disaster effects. Invariably, it is always the media that gets to the spot first. That is nothing unusual. In this case of Andhra Pradesh floods too, the media reached early, while the army, along with NGOs and state machinery, have struggled silently to reach out information as well as relief to the people.

The role of the media in such a scenario would be to show what is being done and where relief needs to reach. The media's role should be to support relief efforts and to facilitate information. Instead, some channels were falling over each other to outdo each other in self-aggrandisement. The CEO of TV9 presenting the news himself, asserts to the camera that the state has failed miserably, and it is TV9 that is rescuing people and the people are grateful for the favour! It is important to pitch in wherever support is needed in relief effort but where is the need to show the nameless 'officials' (adhikarulu, the channel kept referring to) in a negative light in the first hours of the unfolding disaster?

With passing of time, bafflingly, the channel juxtaposed its own bravery against the 'total failure' of the administration and negative bites from the opposition politicians (are we entering the era of governance by the media and not by the elected state?). In contrast, the coverage by other channels was more balanced.

The administration in Andhra Pradesh today has many sources of trouble at a time like this. Saakshi, the channel run by the earlier chief minister's son is doing its own bit of fault-finding reporting, though on a lower key. The opposition parties such as Telugu Desam are out already with claims of administrative failure. By all accounts, the disaster is an unprecedented one, in the extraordinary force and suddenness with which it hit initially. Once the state could foresee the course of events, advance-warning systems were put in place and some 5 lakh people were moved by the state agencies to safer places. Hundreds of camps were set up to provide succour. (Yes, it is possible to do this without the TV channels' help).

A disaster and relief effort of this scale deserved better participation from the media than the 'me Tarzan!" kind of chest thumping and self-promotion. Call it adrenalin rush, call it the Barkha-effect, channels (with a few honourable exceptions like ETV2, perhaps) began to rapidly lose all sense of proportion. Once one channel started the trend, other channels (like Gemini, TV5) began to claim rescuing people etc.

Melodramatic film scores and appropriate songs were soon dug up to accompany the footage and script writers began to wax eloquent to sensationalise a tragedy that the people were living through. Whether it is the dirges that accompanied the 3-day long, 24x7 coverage of YSR's tragic death or the current tragedy, the news itself is rendered unreal and theatrical with falsely sentimental text and the filmy music that goes with it. This has become a routine strategy for most channels. It lacks professionalism and goes to underline the fact that news production requires a different approach from mainstream cinema - an understanding of what can be said and how it needs to be said to be of greatest use to the viewer. Dramatisation of news may get the channels TRPs but misleading, over-dramatised and unexamined information does great disservice to the people.

In times of disaster, should media concentrate on what is happening at the scene of action and give relevant, useful information to the viewers as well as the people affected or should they navel gaze and do 'look ma, how high I can jump!' kind of reporting with the antics of their own reporters?  One saw several reporters in waist deep water, waving mics at people for sound bites. Another reporter on a boat waved the mic for bites from a person in neck-deep water!  The teams were also distributing food to the marooned people in neck-deep water while those rescued and sheltered at state-run centres were declared"miserable and desperate to go home". The channels are repeat offenders of a cardinal sin in news - do not draw attention to thyself. The event is important, not the messenger.

In their anxiety to score brownie points, political parties are wont to criticise. While we are all used to this, it is distressing to see TV channels undermining and sometimes even making light of the enormous work being done silently by various agencies. The complete insensitivity with which this self-promotion was done is beyond any code of conduct or ethics. 

One aspect that was missing was the information from official sources like the district administration for information about the location of relief camps, safe locations and medical camps nearest to the affected areas. That would have been the most relevant information for anyone watching the channels. Similarly, there was complete neglect of the operations of the army, NGOs and civil society volunteers. Only some channels bothered to refer to the relief work being done by non-government organizations and mutual help through citizens' initiative. It is such stories that celebrate the human spirit in times of crisis.

Though the enormity of loss to the farmers and to the state infrastructure was emphasised by the channels, by far the most visible on TV9 was its own attempts at mobilization of public contributions to relief operations. Every time someone came forward to contribute, there would be a long bite from the individual praising the greatness, integrity and sincerity of the channel. The 24x7 coverage is used as a loud plug for the channel. While it is commendable that large-scale response for relief was mobilised from the public, every instance was pushed to the hilt to applaud itself.

And lastly, the possible answer to the question, 'why the negative coverage', and to speculate about the political realignments that are rapidly shaping up in Andhra after YSR's passing: TV9's bosses are major beneficiaries of YSR's largesse. They were given one of the largest SEZs in the country, the 5000 acre Satyaveedu SEZ. YSR used the channel for a regular programme, 'Mr Chief Minister'. These are just two better-known cases of the close links between the YSR family and the channel. When TV9 takes up the 'sufferers' cause', and decides to pillory the Rosiah government for its 'complete failure', it may do well to remember that the team in place is very much the YSR team and tomorrow WHEN YSR's son takes over (which is what all right thinking people of AP are expected to desire), the unnamed bureaucracy and the same ineffective officials are certain to be his team as well.

ETV2, the usual suspect, is playing it cool, giving very balanced coverage. The present Congress dispensation is vastly more desirable than the YSR legacy for the Eenadu house. Saakshi TV owned by Jagan also needs to behave if it does not want the displeasure of the high command. In the current scenario, TV9's shoulders are the ideal perch to shoot from.

Whatever is the story behind the scenes, for me, the sight of the reporter in knee-deep water holding the mic with a wound bunch of wire in the right hand and holding an infant aloft in the left hand is a representative image not just of how not to do reporting but also of how not to rescue. It is to be seen if the reporters doing the bidding of editorial central command and reporting their hearts out, will wake up to find themselves in the swirling waters of political intrigue.



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