Shashidhar Nanjundaiah: Mediated pandemic

01 Oct,2020

By Shashidhar Nanjundaiah

 

“So it seems we are okay now. Right?” said my mother, sounding a little tentative. This was her effort at confirming what she inferred from media stories around the Covid-19 pandemic.

 

Let us look at media coverage of the pandemic from a general and broad functional approach. Has it conveyed important and useful information? Has it provided valuable analyses and scientific perspectives? Has it woven the pandemic as a part of the fabric of its normal discourse? (ie has the pandemic been used in the usual programmes on entertainment using influencers, or on its technology shows where it has introduced us to new technology of working, etc., or on business shows where it has debated and discussed the economic fallouts of the pandemic?)

 

The answer to all these must be a resounding “yes, but…” Unlike in 1918, when the world suffered the last pandemic, this time around, we know so much about Covid-19, thanks to our media. In a pandemic situation, the media behaves differently from the usual. It goes about its business, but exercises more than usual dependence on official sources, on verification, and scientific analyses. This is a reluctant and easily manipulated dependence while the media takes on the responsibility of providing immediate, usable news.

 

The Union Ministry of Health’s briefings started promptly after the pandemic broke out. Then the migrant worker crisis happened. The briefings abruptly stopped in mid-May with no explanation. Perhaps the ministry was unable to offer credible justifications on the migrant worker crisis and other unexpected incidents that left the government stranded like a deer in headlights. Media reports suggest that the Ministry huddled after the crisis and restrategised their communication. Since then, briefings sound like desperate attempts to defend government initiatives and responses, swaying between confusing statistics and government narrative.

 

“Our recovery rate is more than 50 per cent!” a news anchor pronounced. “Our mortality rate is still lower than most countries’!”

“But what does that mean to me?” asked nobody.

 

When the briefings came back, there was an even more emphatic stress on a political narrative in the garb of needless nationalism, wrangling positive stories out of statistics, downplaying India’s dubious Covid position, even telling us how the industry has turned the pandemic into an opportunity.

 

“Look how India’s industrialists and India’s innovators has successfully established a homegrown ventilator industry,” Ministry spokesperson Rajesh Bhushan beamed proudly in a tone and manner as though he were telling a story to a bunch of toddlers. “The biggest news this week is that India has tested two crore tests.” As a channel aired the briefing live, the text graphics ironically showed that Covid cases crossed 18.50 lakh that day.

 

Let us bear in mind that positivity is important for mental health in a lockdown. But in an age when every other person seems to be a dubiously qualified expert on mental health, we are faced with a very real-looking confusion between helping people stay positive amidst a deadly virus outbreak and withholding the truth and releasing information that is all positive.

 

In doing so, several anchors with an obvious political slant appear rather disingenuous. Perfunctory noises are made to maintain old-fashioned journalistic balance. But more often, puerile efforts (including wearing khakis to the anchor set) are rife. But this is all a camouflage but par for the course. While we are attentive to what is being said, we are cleverly diverted by what is not.

 

For example, why is the Indian Covid-19 graph so steady that it’s almost predictable? Other countries, too, have had lockdowns, but the media would have us believe that our government has done a better job than other countries have. A proper correlation between population, testing, cases, and deaths still largely eludes us—although some channels are doing a better job of breaking down all the numbers, not just those that our government would like us to consume.

 

That kind of obfuscating communication conveys the message to the public that the government is well-prepared with strategic communication when an incident is planned, but unexpected events can easily topple the carefully constructed sandcastle.

 

Add to that the convenient distractions that do nearly everybody good. The Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) has also turned storyteller, debriefing the media about how Deepika Padukone “broke down” during the interrogation. Nobody is complaining except Deepika, and she isn’t talking to the media. The problem with this communication model is that even as our brave couch-soldiers give clarion calls on social media to “boycott everything Chinese”, we are starting to adopt the Chinese model of communication.

 

The Indian media is as diverse as its population, and that is where we will remain different from China, whom we both want to emulate and now want to reject. The government may bury its face in the sand in the face of adverse situations, but the media cannot afford to follow suit. In these irreversible times of global communication, there is only a thin shadow that a narrative can hide behind.

 

Meanwhile, my mother remains suspicious of my denial of her “all is well, right?” claim.

 

 

This is an adapted extract from a recent address by the author. As the founder of BeingResponsible, the author is building media awareness among school- and college-goers via Responsible Media Literacy. Prof Nanjundaiah has led media institutes of repute to positions of leadership. You can reach him at shashi.nanjundaiah@hotmail.com.

 

 

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