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A year after Chennai floods: 'National' media continues Delhi-Mumbai favouritism

Durga M Sengupta | Updated on: 10 February 2017, 1:38 IST

"Dear TV channels, please stop saying 'India is with Chennai' -- not only is it untrue but also lays bare how we really feel about non-northern plains areas. Can you ever think of people saying, India is with Delhi? #ChennaiRains"

A friend, also a journalist from Delhi, posted this on his Facebook timeline out of sheer frustration exactly a year ago. Frustration of being in an apathetic Delhi newsroom during the Chennai floods.

While most of 'national media' woke up to the natural disaster about two days in, the likes of TOI and Indian Express, despite having offices in Chennai, failed to carry a report on Page 1. This did not go unnoticed as many on social media - the primary platform used for aid during the floods - called out national media for ignoring Chennai.

The anguish wasn't borne out of the lack of coverage as much as the disproportionate coverage. After all, any calamity or event in and around Delhi and Mumbai gets blown out of proportion, often staying in the media limelight far longer than it merits attention.

A forgotten metropolis

The truth remains that Chennai, despite being a metro - this is not to say that remote areas should be ignored - and despite having lost human life, property, animal habitats, food supply, water, electricity, and, finally, even internet, wasn't considered newsworthy enough to make front page headlines. Something the blinkered Delhi-centric media would never allow to happen to their home city.

According to Tamil Nadu state government records, 347 people died in the floods. And a large number of them didn't die instantly. They were lost, stuck, injured, sick, starving, or just unable to call out for help. Our national media, who have the resources to reach war zones, never made it to these people.

And that's possibly because sometimes, it is too much work to tell the real story. Aaj Tak's Tej News chose to put their anchor in CGI floods that slowly rose to the height of stupidity.

Not only is it deplorable that coverage was poor, but Tej News set the bar so low, it would've been more sensitive to not carry a report at all.

A year on

While the lack of empathy is hard to forgive, it is important to look back and see what has changed.

Unfortunately, not much.

Siddharth Vardarajan, Editor, The Wire, in an interview, spoke about how the lack of media attention during Chennai floods showed that the government wasn't being questioned for how state infrastructure failed.

"This lack of media attention also means that the government is not being questioned about the lack of infrastructure or even mis-governance. This debate should have been triggered by the Chennai floods but unfortunately they didn't," he said.

Now, we know that demonetisation has raised a hue against the central government and the position the ruling has put the disadvantaged in. If one were to start reading newspapers from 8 November, from when it was enforced, it would seem like it's the single biggest thing plaguing India right now. And it absolutely is.

But on closer inspection, one would also observe that most of the coverage from the first week of demonetisation are again, stories from around Delhi, Mumbai, the privileged, or the privileged from these cities. Barring Mamata Banerjee and Akhilesh Yadav's political statements, the representation of other cities and states in demonetisation coverage was bare minimal.

Some of the early coverage:

Rs 500, Rs 1,000 banned: Mumbai shifts to credit mode as major cash turns trash

What can NRIs do with their old Rs500, Rs1,000 notes?

Delhi Metro records over 100% spike in Rs 1,000, Rs 500 recharges

Income Tax raids in Delhi, Mumbai to find banned 500 and 1000 rupee notes

But Delhi never really stops suffering national tragedies. The week before demonetisation, the capital was reeling from a deathly smog. Deathly, but nowhere close to the danger levels of Chennai floods.

Here's how it was covered by national media:

How to get rid of India's dangerous smog

Delhi smog not just due to Diwali? One lesson India must learn from Pakistan

The comprehensive guide to staying healthy in the Delhi smog

Delhi facing worst smog in 17 years: Centre for Science and Environment

Turning a blind eye

Year after year, nothing changes. Decentralising national media is a debate that comes up every time there's an under-reported tragedy in a different part of the country.

Traditional regional media like Kashmir Reader suffer bans and this goes unnoticed till the government orders a day's ban on national channel NDTV. If their absence is so greatly unnoticed across the country, how would regional media ever be able to out-report national media?

It's almost as though the northeast and south of India are not worth engaging with.

Assam floods are famously ignored in national media. It's almost as though the northeast and south of India are not worth engaging with. So much so that those working in the national media don't even expect any engagement or readership from these regions.

As a managing editor of a famous media house had once proudly announced to the newsroom, "This is amazing. We have a huge readership from Bangalore and Chennai. Push more south stories."

That we consider it amazing is one part of the problem. The larger part is that we consider it amazing despite considering ourselves a "national presence".

When the 'Nirbhaya' gang-rape occurred in Delhi, the whole country was united in demand for justice. This anger was [rightly] fuelled by the national media's passionate reporting of the incident and eventually, the girl's death.

We chose activism over traditional reporting because it rankled with us. Something similar happened when a photojournalist was raped in Mumbai's infamous Shakti Mills.

Compare this to rape and murder case of Jisha in Kerala in April 2016. Not only were we comfortable about naming her, but she was gone from public memory in a few short days.

The media often stands up for its own, or for those who are close to home. We passionately report what we fear. And we do not fear floods in Chennai.

Name your reporter

This is not to say that Chennai has no media presence. The Hindu's head office, for one, is in Chennai, and so are many bureaus of national media.

But where are the young journalists in all these media houses coming from? Mostly colleges that not many can afford. This means that a lot of our young journalist population is Delhi or Mumbai-based, rather privileged, English speaking and writing, and learning to report only within the society they're most comfortable with.

That's the first problem.

The second is that with the advent of online media, a lot of journalism takes place within the office. The TV follows leads from wires, the web follows leads from wires and TV, and with integrated newsrooms popping up, newspapers follow leads from everyone else.

Homogenous media, no matter how well-intentioned, misses the larger picture.

The organic sources of news, be it stringers or correspondents, are grappling with this new model. Their stories - not always that of Delhi or Mumbai - lost.

Homogenous media, no matter how well-intentioned, misses the larger picture. The most obvious evidence for this statement would be Donald Trump's victory in the United States.

Despite being the most over reported country, even by our self-proclaimed national media, just about every media house in the US got it wrong. Because we've stopped reporting all that is.

And if not by our own, it's time Indian national media learnt by the American example.

First published: 4 December 2016, 7:12 IST
Durga M Sengupta @the_bongrel

Feminist and culturally displaced, Durga tries her best to live up to her overpowering name. She speaks four languages, by default, and has an unhealthy love for cheesy foods. Assistant Editor at Catch, Durga hopes to bring in a focus on gender politics and the role in plays in all our interactions.