Disaster reporting or ‘disastrous’ reporting

The Indian news channels came in for sharp criticism for their lop-sided coverage of the recent floods in J&K. The disaster reporting of the mainstream Indian media has not done any good to its image in Kashmir which is already tarnished for its biased conflict reporting in the region. The news channels, with some exceptions, seemed to be engaged in public relations exercise for the armed forces. Ferried by the Army and IAF choppers, the reporters seemed to be obliged to praise the armed forces. Some of the channels went out of their way to heap praises on Prime Minister, Narendra Modi for his ‘concern’ for the flood victims.

With the more trustworthy local newspapers remaining inaccessible due to floods, the public anger evoked by the Indian news channels was more pronounced. I remember finding one of the acquaintances fume with anger after he had seen one of these reputable news channels compare the stone pelting by youth on troopers with the help extended by Army to Kashmiris stranded in flood-hit areas. It reminds of similar kind of reportage after the October 8, 2005 earthquake when the mainstream media exaggerated Army’s role in the rescue operations while ignoring the civilian initiatives.

Just a month after the floods, the mainstream media seems to have suffered from compassion fatigue. This is evident when the flood coverage is compared with the coverage of earlier disasters like 2013 Uttarakhand flashfloods and 2001 Bhuj (Gujarat) earthquake.

The local, national and international media treated the Kashmir floods differently prioritizing and focusing on different issues keeping in view their specific audiences. Criticism and skepticism in the local media about government has been quite evident. No doubt criticism is genuine to a large extent but in certain instances it does tend to be exaggerated. The positive side is that the state government is under pressure to deliver because its rescue, relief and rehabilitation efforts were being closely followed by the media. Public philanthropy and role of NGO’s has been given appreciable coverage. The NGOs help the victims and in turn these organizations need the media to try and get their message out. This in turn helps generate more funding and attention for disaster relief.

Corporate India’s luke warm response needs to be highlighted. If the corporate donations for previous disasters are compared with the donation status for the Kashmir floods, the difference will be easily discernible. In the aftermath of the October 8 earthquake, the media pointed out the inadequate response of business houses and subsequently some of them did send their teams to Kashmir with donations for the victims.

One of the most heartening features of local media coverage of October 8 earthquake and the recent floods was the due coverage given to human interest stories. It is not surprising at all that most people these days prefer to read a first-hand account of a flood victim rather than a politician’s statement. The indication of a responsible and compassionate coverage comes from the frequency and importance given to the soft stories or human element stories.

However, a lot needs to be done in terms of disaster reporting.  In the pre-disaster phase, media’s role is to call for measures to avoid tragedy or to keep the losses to minimal. Media’s watch dog function is most needed in the pre-disaster phase. But barring few stories, there was no real concerted effort on part of the media before October 8 earthquake and the recent floods to stress on the need for disaster management.  In the post-disaster phase also, it needs to stress on the need for disaster awareness, preparedness and management.

In the immediate aftermath of the October 8 earthquake, much was reported on the aid and generosity from all quarters including government and public fund raising. Many organizations (governmental as well as non-governmental) offered large sums of money for aid. Yet many months later, there was hardly anything in the mainstream news broadcasts on the amount actually delivered, rather than initially pledged, or how it was used.  Just a few stories on the aid delivery would not only allow people to see how the government has responded to their outpouring of generosity, but also allow the public to keep up the pressure.

Media’s role pertaining to the last month’s flood is not over yet. It needs to ensure that the rehabilitation schemes are implemented properly on ground.