I work for a national daily. It’s a hard thing to admit to when you’re in the midst of something as sudden and shocking as a natural calamity, because there is a truth few reporters will say aloud: journalists thrive on tragedies. But when the tragedy becomes personal, when for days there is no news of friends and loved ones because all communication lines are down, I struggle to understand what we’re doing here. One reporter wanted to add details to his story about how a mother was living on her baby’s Cerelac as there was nothing else to eat. To me, it seemed like feeding on someone’s private suffering. But isn’t that what journalists do every day? Take personal sorrows and play them up on national TV?
In times like these, what media channels and publications say and do and the manner they say it affects thousands of viewers. What the media chooses to focus on becomes news. For instance, focusing on angry residents pelting stones at rescuers: this is difficult terrain. Residents becoming angry at rescuers is not something strange or unexpected. When you are living without food or water for days, with no idea whether your loved ones are safe or even alive, anyone would become agitated. In Uttarakhand last year, angry residents heckled the Chief Minister and blocked roads, furious that rescue efforts were focusing more on pilgrims then local residents. But when it happens in Kashmir, many shades get added to this. The internet is swarming with trolls ready to latch on to such pieces, to spew vitriol even at the worst possible times. Should the media not report that angry residents are thwarting rescue efforts? Hardly. Such actions should be condemned as they help no one. But the tendency to take refuge in numbers (the Army has airlifted so many rations, the government has donated so many billions) and to reduce personal losses to giant marquee banners can mean other pressing matters get missed out.
There are other stories trickling in: journalists saying that residents have been doing most of the rescuing efforts, that the State administration is nowhere to be seen. The Indian administration remains poorly-equipped to deal with natural disasters, even a year after the flash floods which ravaged Uttarakhand. Flood warnings where not issued in time. As the waters recede and the full extent of devastation becomes apparent, many more issues may come to light. Now is not the time to pick faults or create rifts. Let’s not forget our basic humanity and pray for our friends struggling through this unimaginable period of difficulty.