News in the time of calamity

Time: 3:30 p.m. Date: Tuesday, 26 July. Two news channel reporters discuss how they‘re going to reach a theatre screening the Amitabh Bacchhan blockbuster Sarkar on time so as not to keep their dates waiting.

The steady rain was making them a bit uncomfortable, but faithful Mumbaikars that they were, they were optimistic that it would soon stop. Little did they know that not only would they not make it to the film screening, but would be stuck in office for the next one-and-a-half days, reporting the happenings of a city that came under a water siege as its critical infrastructure fell apart.

Some kilometers away in suburban Goregoan, employees of Sahara Samay News were busy doing routine activities when the rains started pouring in the evening and continued unabated for the next 36 hours. In the process, not only did their daily schedules get washed away, but within a few hours, the whole studio got destroyed, deluged by the rising rain waters.

But, as they say, when the going gets tough, the tough get going. Braving torrential rain and an indifferent state administration, news channels got into the act on many fronts --- to keep the country up to date on the state of Mumbai and other parts of Maharashtra; to act as lifelines in some cases and, more importantly, to keep the on-air emotional quotient at an even keel.

"The watery developments took us by surprise back here in Delhi initially. But once we assessed the situation, we pulled no punches in our coverage. So much so that satellite phones were deployed to get over the failing landline and cellular phone networks," Zee Telefilms news director and head of Zee News Laxmi N Goel says.

Though the heavy rain that brought to its knees the financial capital of the country for a few days --- the state government says the losses could be more than Rs 150 billion --- was certainly not as catastrophic as the Tsunami earlier this year, it did leave a trail of misery and a whole set of lessons to be learnt.

One of the lessons learnt by some news channels was that technology is an asset, but can be a liability too. India TV for example, which as an innovation had filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt doing reporting duty to record the human side of the story, found to its dismay that heavy rains disrupted its KU-band equipped digital satellite news gathering functions.

Admits India TV chairman Rajat Sharma, "We had to face difficulties sending feeds directly to the satellite or to the broadcast centre in Noida (on the outskirts of Delhi) as KU-band technology gets affected by rain. Thankfully we managed alternatives."

But rain or no rain, technology failing or not, the news channels had their forces out in full reporting from various places in the city under extremely trying circumstances.

Aaj Tak, the country‘s No. 1 news channel in terms of market share, had 13 reporters and 12 cameramen out in the field who were working in tandem with stringers spread across the state.

Indeed, reporters did face problems with respect to communications but broke through the physical obstacles, and waded through the waters. And as the mobile network died on them for the first 24 hours, reporters used landlines wherever possible.

Says Aaj Tak‘s Mumbai bureau chief Shishir Joshi, "All endeavors were made to deliver information very objectively and to avoid causing further panic amongst the Mumbaikars."

Illustrating the situation following the rumours that hit Mumbaikars in the aftermath of the 26 July deluge, which caused widespread panic, Joshi points out that the channel kept a constant flow of announcements going rubbishing the stories circulating as untrue.

The channel had an exclusive showcase of the situation on the day of the catastrophe; the reporter cum cameraman presented his diary as he commuted from Nariman Point to Andheri. Roving with the crowd, aiming to give viewers the experience of what the people felt after they were hit by the deluge.

The channel provided coverage showcasing both the sides of the fence, speaking to local authorities, and affected people. Joshi avers, "Aaj Tak was first to hit the screen with the report on the calamity that struck Kalyan and informing the viewers about the possible dangers ahead."

He adds that the channel covered all pockets of Mumbai, objectively and bringing precise information. The channel also initiated scrolls and tickers with messages informing about the welfare of their loved ones.

Wannabe numero uno Star News had a team of 30 reporters and four OB vans reporting in from various points, Star News marketing manager Yogesh Manwani reveals. Zee News, taking advantage of the parent company (Zee Telefilms) being headquartered in Mumbai, deployed several crews with four OB vans, while India TV had 18 reporters and an equal number of camerapersons out in the field.

Sahara Samay Mumbai, despite shifting base to Delhi partially, left no stone unturned for maximum coverage. Its news head Ajay Pandey asserts that along with stringers all over the state, over 50 correspondents were covering the calamity. Fledgling Channel 7 also used this as an opportunity to connect with viewers in the metropolis with over 10 crews fanning out in the city.

Star News, the only channel that has its headquarters in Mumbai, proudly asserts that despite failing communication network due to power outages "we have done far more justice to the havoc than any other channel."

Commenting on the coverage, Manwani offers, "The stories largely witnessed spot reporting. The team managed to go to the far ends of Mumbai and also the inaccessible areas to bring in a feel of the exact situation in the affected areas."

Star News extensively employed the usage of its all-weather camera perched on the Star building in Mahalaxmi suburb. "The all-weather camera was employed as a backdrop to keep people informed on the situation of the overcast sky," he adds.

Talking about the logistics involved in Zee News‘ coverage, channel editor Alka Saxena says, "Zee news deployed 12 reporters and these reporters continously worked for a whole week, some even staying in office for four days at a stretch. The hurdles were the same as faced by hundreds of thousands of Mumbaikars, of travelling and keeping equipment safe from rains. Our reporters‘ responsibilities were much more of coverage, safety and sending footage to office and OB vans. Some of the reporters even walked 10-12 km and brought footage to the office. We had two OB vans and two office links working continuously for the whole week."

"On Tuesday, when the mayhem began, the most difficult was movement as the whole of Mumbai came to a standstill. Reporters had to literally wade through Mumbai to cover the crisis. We had to save our equipment and also save ourselves from flooding waters. Tuesday and Wednesday were the toughest days," says Saxena.

Elaborating on the coverage aspects, she adds that apart for carrying stories, walkthroughs and live reports in all the bulletins from various locations throughout the week. Zee News dedicated almost the entire day to Mumbai rains when the crisis began, We kept changing our montage as the story developed from ‘mumbai mein barish ka kehar‘ on first day to ‘100 crore paani mein‘ the next day to ‘Musibat Mein Mumbai,‘ on the third day when along with rains the ONGC disaster took place, once things improved our montage changed to ‘Patri Par Lauti Zindagi‘.

Commenting on the travails of reporting such natural calamities, Channel 7 chief operating officer Piyush Jain says, "Over the last one week, in my opinion, the toughest day for the correspondents would have been on 1 August because of the wind pressure that mounted. (According to media reports the Meteorological office specified that the winds will continue to blow at about 50 km per hour.)

The incessant rains also brought in problems of other sorts for the news channels. That of programming. How long can you keep on showing water logged areas and heavy rain hitting the window pane? So from `Musibet Mein Mumbai‘ (on India TV where filmmaker Bhatt brought out some unsung heroes) to `Mumbai Haha Kar‘ (on Channel 7) to Nightline (Sahara Samay Mumbai), the news channels conceived current affairs programming to go beyond the news and the obvious.

Star News initiated a special effort wherein the channel designed a theme revolving around viewers narrating their experiences, which were all brought live on screen by reporters and sometimes by viewers who where brought to the studio to comprehend the administrative apathy that they went through.

Star News on 27 July was the first to deliver news on the Sakinaka landslides. When quizzed that other channels also claim to have been on the spot, Manwani points out, "Well, compare the footage and the time of delivery of the news."

Star News reporters remained to file in reports despite a few of them personally having faced property losses during the calamity. Seven of the channel‘s camera equipments were also damaged. Manwani adds, "One of our correspondents remained stationed at the airport for 36 hours aiming to bring information to the viewers on the situation."

The channel faced no technical difficulties and were all prepared with a back-up in case of breakdown in technical or satellite communication, says the spokesperson.

What about the international news channels like the BBC and CNN? According to BBC South Asia Bureau chief Paul Danahar, the network‘s Mumbai correspondent reported round the clock for the BBC World, radio and on-line service. The Mumbai flood was the biggest story on our South Asia edition of getting out to hundreds of thousands of readers from across the world, six times the number of any other story on the site. Along with being broadcast on BBC World, it was also big news in the UK, making all the main BBC TV bulletins."

For CNN New Delhi bureau chief Satinder Bindra, who hit Mumbai‘s streets on Wednesday, the main challenge was getting to the heart of the flood-affected areas. Says Bindra, "We used our own portable, light-weight digital news gathering gear to broadcast live from the field. Making sure we got the most accurate information to report and to ensure that we passed that information onto our audiences around the world. Each day was tough because of the logistical challenges of getting around in Mumbai. We tried to focus on the central part of the city, including Saki Naka, and other affected suburban areas which saw widespread damage and loss to property and life."

Bindra stressed on the importance CNN attached to the story, "It was the lead or second lead story in many of our newscasts. This was the situation for several days. Our news producers were aware of how important it was to show the world the challenges and the resilience of the people of Mumbai during the natural disaster.

Bindra points to a particular incident that touched and moved him. "We were in Saki Naka and we met and spoke to a 14-year-old boy, Mohammed Afzal, who had lost nine members of his family due to the floods. The story was very human and conveyed to audiences the plight faced by individuals like him during this catastrophe. We ran the story 15 times on CNN International."

As regards damages, Sahara Samay Mumbai was the worst hit of all the news channels. Sahara Samay Mumbai vice-president Rajiv Bajaj did admit that though the calculations are still on, initial estimates put the company losses at over Rs 500 million in the form of damaged infrastructure, including the Goregaon studio and costly technical equipment.

Sahara Samay Mumbai was nonfunctional for two days from 26 July but still managed to get stories up on air via their Noida hub. Says Bajaj, "In the end, we did cope well and sprang back into action by operating from the Atlanta Building (Sahara Samay Rashtriya‘s Mumbai bureau) at Nariman Point."

Still, as they say, the spirit of Mumbai lies in its people and not its politicians. So the ‘thank yous‘ that the news channels received in response to their coverage and acts of kind deeds made up for the difficult conditions under which professional duties were undertaken.

The channels also did their bit. If Star News organized food and other daily essentials for some water-logged areas of Mumbai, Channel 7 got a high when it managed organise Navy rescue teams with inflatable lifeboats in the Santa Cruz area on 1 August. Of course, almost all channels ran tickers with distress messages from relatives for those stranded in Mumbai, flight details and other information that could be used by people who had power supply in their areas and could watch cable television.

(Despite several attempts over the last 24 hours, NDTV declined to offer any inputs to this report.)

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