Two views on news on Chennai

04 Dec,2015



Shailesh Kapoor: For our Media, Chennai is no Mumbai or Delhi


By Shailesh Kapoor


Call it nature’s fury or a man-made calamity, or indeed a combination of the two, Chennai is reeling under one of the most severe crises a big city in India has seen in many years. And it doesn’t seem to be getting over in a hurry, despite great support from various constituencies, ranging from the Army to the social media.


News of incessant rains in Chennai began to come in about two weeks ago itself. It was given the status of an also-ran headline, getting 30-second coverage in non-primetime, or a cursory mention in the inside pages of national newspapers.


Earlier this week, when it became clear that the crisis is only deepening than solving itself out, media reluctantly began to cover Chennai. It was still outside the main hours and the front pages. Only about Wednesday (just two days ago) did Chennai become the main story in the Indian media. Ironically, the social media had taken up the subject at least two days before that.


Chennai is no North-East. It’s not that obscure part of India that people have barely heard about, and have no social or commercial connect with. It’s a big city, traditionally classified as one of the four metros in India.


But the media treatment of Chennai rains would make you believe something happened in Nagaland or Lakshadweep (not to say that these places do not deserve media coverage). It was news from the outside, through the lens of a media that operates out of Delhi and Mumbai, and looks at rest of India as if it’s only a matter of completion.


Remember July 26, 2005? One day of rains and the resultant situation made the media follow the story full-throttle, for at least a week. Even this week, Delhi’s pollution story has competed with Chennai for coverage on most Hindi news channels.


When it comes to showing and seeing Tamilian (or “Madrasi”) characters as caricatures in our entertainment content, most of us don’t bat an eyelid. But when it comes to covering a big story from Chennai, another section of the same media can develop cold feet. And “forced” to cover it, they carry headlines like “India stands united with Chennai”. What does that even mean? Chennai is a part of India. Why does India have to show its unity for one of its own?


I call this the ‘Head Office (HO) Bias’. The editorial team tends to give naturally high weightage to stories from the city it is based in, or runs major operations from. There are two reasons for this. One, you see the story around you, e.g. if you are based out of Delhi, you can feel the pollution in the air. Two, you have some of your best journalists placed in these cities, especially the HO. So you are likely to get better stories and exclusives from there.


Some would even give the ratings argument, such as Hindi news channels not being watched down South, and the story being of limited public interest in the rest of India. I would normally support that argument for a conventional political story, but when it comes to national crisis, a different lens can surely be applied. Or is that too much to ask for?



Ranjona Banerji: Thankfully, the national media woke up to Chennai’s plight in December


By Ranjona Banerji


Tamil Nadu has been battered by rain for most of November. The city of Chennai has been particularly ravaged. Close to 150 people died from rain-related crises in November. But for the national media, especially television, all we saw was raging and fury over why Delhi chief minister Arvind Kerjiwal hugged former Bihar chief minister Lalu Yadav and how dare actor Aamir Khan’s wife express an opinion.


It is unfair to claim this was just a north-south divide that we have seen in the media for decades. There was something more on display here. It was that sort of hysterical mindless race to find the subjects that could generate the most sound and fury that seems to have become the rule these days. It also demonstrated an obsession with politics and playing upon the political divide. When people’s lives and homes are being destroyed by unprecedented rain, you cannot really have a good noisy debate of Sambit Patra versus Sanjay Jha.


One can grant them that many other things were happening. Paris suffered one more terrorist attack. The prime minister was travelling and meeting his overseas fan clubs. The climate was visiting the global stage once more. Election results had to be discussed threadbare. Artists and intellectuals continued to express distress. Rain, no matter how much damage it caused, was obviously not exciting enough.


Thankfully, the terrible surge in rainfall in Tamil Nadu in December suddenly got the media’s attention. Newspapers had it on their front pages and news channels gave us 24 hour coverage. All of them were relatively sober in their coverage and until Thursday night had not descended into a political blame game. Massive efforts were made to coordinate with rescue services and to highlight the efforts being made by voluntary organisations and concerned citizens to help affected people in any way possible.


Full marks must be given to all those reporters and camerapersons who braved rain and flood water to bring us their stories. It is they who are the backbone of this celebrity-driven TV media we are now surrounded by. TV has changed the dynamics of a newsroom to the extent that viewers cannot see beyond the anchors and young wannabe journalists only aim for that perceived fame and glory without realising background work that goes into making a story a success. Yeah, end of lecture and please watch Network (the film) if you haven’t already.


But you have to feel for newsrooms here, even when it comes to getting politicians to comment on just about everything. We in India appear to have a shortage of experts who are well-known enough or articulate or can be easily located. It sounds odd to write this but it is something experienced firsthand when I was part of several edit page teams. We have partitioned our lives in such strange ways that academia is often aloof and also unwilling to communicate in a manner than non-experts will understand.


Especially now when it comes to the environment and climate change and technology, we need public intellectuals to come forward and explain and share. If they don’t, we’re going to be stuck with Sambit Patra holding forth on everything…




December 1 was World Aids Day. There was cursory coverage in most newspapers and the horror story is that India, having done so well, is now back to the edge of disaster in controlling HIV/Aids, government funding having been cut and foreign funding having dried up. The best coverage of this impending horror came from the comedy group AIB, on their new very watchable show on Star World. Ya I know, but really. Go figure.


Image courtesy: Press Information Bureau


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