May be news channels also need a disaster management plan

Sad but true. Moving from the regular mundane breaking news; it is natural calamities, war and violence that make for classic 'live news' TV drama. No, I am not saying news channels exactly look forward to deluge and devastation but they definitely thrive on tragedies for viewership and reach.

Also, what better opportunity for hungry and adrenaline charged TV crews to prove themselves. A real testing time to showcase their skills, be first with the news, get the best footage, look for human interest stories and of course provide the real link between the junta and the government.

Last week's 'Terrible Tuesday' provided exactly this opportunity for news channels. As the God's went crazy and the monsoon fury brought life to a standstill in Mumbai, channels tried their best to be first off the block. And since then, till yesterday perhaps, there hasn't been anything else to watch for on news channels.

So, coming to the moot point, how did the channels fare last week; as they went about covering the floods, death and destruction?

Though I missed the initial part of the coverage on Tuesday night (I was also stuck on the roads), going by the next day's footage it looked as if just like the 'aam junta', the channels and reporters too were caught unawares and panic struck. One got to see the same footage almost on all the channels, with people braving the weather and chest deep water desperately trying to get home, upturned vehicles, etc.

Then there were the regular stories, of course, which brought out the plight of people across the city and the total breakdown of the administrative machinery. Most of the channels had stories revolving around people stranded at airports, flights being cancelled, trains not working and how the government was doing nothing to help the citizens. At this stage, the real job was dissemination of the right information to viewers; of which a clutch of channels did do a fairly good job. There were phone-ins, studio based anchor shows and some over-excited reporters doing their PTCs.

The differentiators in the reportage were mostly in terms of presentation and scripting really to break the clutter and conformity. So, while Aaj Tak had a plasma screen explaining the `dehsat' the Mumbai rains had caused, NDTV had Baarish ka kahar, Zee Marathi Nako Nako Re Paaus.

Though, one didn't really get to see too many of the reporters braving the weather or taking risks to get on to some different stuff. But, then this could also be because of the geographical constraints. The geographical reach of the disaster, coupled with lack of road access to some of the worst-hit areas, made it one of the most challenging assignments to be undertaken.

But one expected the stories to move on by Thursday and Friday. More of human interest stories, point to point coverage of different areas, more matured and in-depth stories; but instead what one got was the old footage being recyled with studio news. Harried reporters thrusting microphones at wailing people and trying to get their comments. There were repeats of old footage and sound bytes which sort of gave a slightly skewed picture of the whole situation. So, while you had a reporter actually saying that the situation was getting under control the picture that went with the story gave a different picture.

Regional channels score

Here somehow the regional channels ETV Marathi, Zee Marathi, and Sahara Samay Mumbai (in that order) scored above the others. There were reports from places like Panel, Raigad, Thane, which most of the national networks didn't devote much attention to. This probably could also be because of the fact that most of the channel offices are on the Western lines. From the mainline news channels what one got to see as far as panoramic coverage was concerned were aerial shots.

At times, the basic dictum followed by most channels seemed to be to give the stories and be finished with it. To point out a few glitches, not a single channel got down to really explaining the real geographical structure of Mumbai to the outside world. Now, what sense would places like Sion, Thane, Kalina or Dahisar make to the outside world? Here, perhaps channels need to take cues from the likes of BBC World and CNN.

As the story moved on over to the weekend, when most of us thought things were coming to normal; channels focused on creating sensitivity across the country and to undertake the right relief measures to help those who were affected by the disaster.

But then the rain gods unleashed their fury one more time on Sunday and Monday. And this time around, most of the channels stayed on with the old news and carried it forward with the newer events. But it was unfortunate that over the whole of last week there were rare instances of reportage that really rose above the predictable.

So, does the coverage of the calamity show a tale of progression for the news channels or for the television industry? I think this is really the second phase of the industry where the channels have increased in numbers and so have the stories. But, the depth and the quality of news leave much to be desired. There's definitely a need for more trained broadcast journalists who can get on with their jobs when a calamity strikes.

So, as the Maharashtra government gears up for a disaster management plan, it's also time perhaps for news channels to get their act together; considering in the coming years they could well be setting the agenda for the nation.

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