Saturday, September 6, 2003
S I G H T  &  S O U N D

Amita Malik
Insensitive coverage of disasters
Amita Malik

AS disaster piled upon disaster in this country, disaster management seemed to get more and more confused. The newer channels, in particular, seemed totally confused, simply rushing in with labels like Breaking News and Exclusive, regardless of whether they were making exaggerated or dubious claims to both. I shall take only the example of Star News on the subject of breaking news, because it was the worst example on the Srinagar crisis. For over four hours, it showed exactly the same footage of the jawans emerging from behind an army transport, of their waving away intruders, the smoke and noise from the army assault on the house where the militants were based and, most of all, the press briefings by police and BSF chiefs. These were repeated to give the wrong impression that news was being broken as it came. Nor was there anything much exclusive or new about the visuals and sound, because many other channels were carrying the same items. I also found utterly silly the woman commentator in a black suit (western style to give the impression of professionalism, perhaps a saree or salwar-kameez were considered too feminine). All the more so because she was in a studio in Delhi with a map, and not even on the spot and giving "expert" opinions on the goings-on. In this instance, I would give higher marks to the reporters on the spot, especially some Kashmiri reporters with direct knowledge of the area.


This false rush to breaking news and exclusivity is only equalled by the lack of taste and sensitivity which most channels showed over the visuals. First in Mumbai, even NDTV, which should have known better, kept on showing the large pools of blood at the Gateway of India. This was repeated so often by every channel that after a time it lost its impact. Then at Kumbh, it was women who had died in the stampede in close-up, with their sarees above their knees and robbed of privacy even in death. These visuals could only have hurt and traumatised their relatives and friends. I am also not sure that channels should flash the names of those killed or injured on the screen in another mad race, although it might put the relatives of those not killed or injured out of suspense. The army and defence services always wait to announce the names until the next of kin are informed. This, however, is a debatable subject.

One cannot help contrasting the American coverage of the September 11 happenings, where not one body of dead or injured person was shown in close-up or by name. It did not make the tragedy any less. NDTV has issued to its staff a circular based on foreign practice about covering the human aspect of disasters. I think every TV channel should get hold of it, because nothing could be more painful for survivors and relatives and friends and, of course, viewers than insensitive visuals and comments at such sensitive moments. An Indian media code for covering disasters is sorely needed.

With talk shows and panel discussions proliferating, and with the same suspects being shown over and over again in different programmes, the art of research is making slows progress on our TV screens. People like David Frost, Tim Sebastian and other famous anchors are said to have as many as 800 people working on research at times. So our smart Alecs, usually those younger ones doing programmes on cinema or running art and culture programmes, show up very badly about their superficial background knowledge when conducting interviews with the usual screams and giggles.

Two editors with talk shows have highlighted the importance of adequate research before doing what are undoubtedly top-level and difficult programmes. The first is Shekhar Gupta for his Walk the Talk programmes where he has walked and talked with a wide range of people. The other is Vir Sanghvi who also has a wide variety in his choice of interviewes and subjects. Both, obviously, are experienced mediapersons who know what's what, but it is equally obvious that they have skilled and specialised researchers to back them up, which makes watching their programmes so informative as well as entertaining for the viewer. Of course, one of the best by Sanghvi was his chat last week with Victor Banerjee. And it also helped that Victor was an old friend from school days. I could sense how carefully Vir had crafted his programme, relaxed and yet sound on facts. I liked it particularly because Victor is also an old friend of mine and I sensed how Sanghvi had picked out the essentials from a very varied life, from a brief flutter with politics to acting under David Lean and Satyajit Ray. Research combined with personal experience is the best combination for a TV programme of this kind. It also showed that some of our younger upstart anchors have a long way to go.