On August 15, as news channels in the rest of India celebrated Independence Day, Malayalam news channels did not have time to pause. They were in the midst of an unprecedented crisis, with flood waters engulfing large portions of the state. This was a disaster of unimaginable proportions, and in the wrong hands, the coverage of the floods, too, could have been disastrous.
Luckily for Kerala, the Malayalam TV channels in the state decided to keep calm and deal with the crisis in the only right way to do it: with absolute maturity and zero theatrics. No one dived into water or got into a metaphorical bathtub. No one screamed or took credit for âbeing the firstâ or âbeing the bestâ. They all prioritised being responsible instead.
Take News 18 Malayalam for instance. After a quick editorial meeting on August 15, the channel decided to change their entire layout. In place of the regular breaking news ticker, they introduced many layers of graphics for information dissemination.
The big decision taken at the meeting was to introduce a ticker called 'Good News'. At a time when Kerala was panicking, and rumours of dams bursting were spreading like wildfire, the 'Good News' ticker relentlessly told viewers about how much the water level was coming down in each reservoir, and relayed weather predictions. Another ticker told people not to panic, asked them to be careful, and communicated warnings issued by the Kerala government.
Improvising their coverage to help people caught in the worst flood that the state has faced in a century had become a priority for all channels, and each one rose to the occasion. Manorama News, News 18 Malayalam, Mathrubhumi, Asianet, Reporter Live, Jai Hind, Kaumudy, Janam and Media One, all served as distress call centres.
"We put out a number on which people could call us. People were frantic, they were not sure who could help. They wanted us to hand over their numbers to the CMâs office, to the Army, NDRF or Navy, to whoever could provide help,â recalls Johny Lukose, the Editor of Manorama News. âWe confirmed people's locations and then handed over the information to the CM's office, that was co-coordinating with distress calls," he says.
Most of these channels received thousands of calls on their helpline, and many of them also suspend all ad breaks in order to show continuous coverage of floods. "The location of each person and their contact number was handed over to the CMâs office. We also made medical emergencies a priority," says an editor with News 18.
While all the channels carried a small portion of the distress calls they received on air, they wrote down details of each call, to hand to over to authorities and relief collectors. An editor with Reporter Live channel says that their web team has been so busy coordinating rescue and relief, that they hardly had time to update their own website. This was a big sacrifice, as a lot of revenue for media networks is through their online clicks.
Asianet News received more than 45,000 distress calls in four days and they managed this massive volume by tying up with an IAS academy in Thiruvananthapuram. "We had given out a number to which people could SMS details if they or their relatives were stranded. Twenty staff members and 120 students of the 'I Learn' IAS Academy called back on these numbers and took down locations. These were then plotted on Google maps and handed over to rescue teams," says Vinu V John, Senior Co-ordinating Editor of Asianet News.
The channels also became platforms where people offered help real time. News 18 Malayalam believes that a crucial turn in their coverage was when Father Theodosius, from the Thiruvananthapuram Latin Archdiocese called on their helpline number and told the anchor on live that the diocese wanted to send 60 fishing boats for rescue missions, but wanted government help to understand where. The channel immediately called Kadakampally Surendran, an MLA from the capital city and Minister for Co-Operation, Tourism and Devaswom. He then called the diocese and immediately came back on the channel to announce that the government will transport these fishing boats and fishermen to areas where their help was needed.
After receiving multiple distress call from a location in Aluva in Ernakulam district, Asianet News arranged for a few fishermen and boats to be transported to the location. "We all had to combine journalism and rescue and relief efforts," says Vinu.
Tackling Fake News
By August 16, fake news, especially on the safety of dams, was spreading far and wide adding to the panic. âMalampuzha dam shutters to open in full capacityâ, âMullaperiyar dam has developed cracksâ, âpower to be cut all across Keralaâ, were some of the alarming messages. Then, the News 18 team decided to introduce a new ticker to debunk fake news. The ticker would constantly display a rumour and call it out by pointing out what the fact was.
Manorama Online introduced a section called 'CrossChecked' and debunked fake news. From âa dangerous snake that could kill many with its venomâ to âchicken pox spreading in campsâ, all kinds of rumours were laid to rest.
A positive outlook
While it would have been easy to paint a grim picture and fill the bulletins with tales of sorrow and struggle, most channels decided to play a role in the rebuilding of the state.
Mathrubhumi News is running a campaign called #WeShallOvercome asking for more relief, money into the Chief Minister's fund, and for stories of hope.
News 18 Malayalam launched two campaigns on August 20. One called 'Open your hearts, Open your homes' asking people to open up their houses to give temporary accommodation to those who did not have a house to go back to. The channel received 60 calls from Good Samaritans just in the first hour after the campaign was introduced. The list of names were handed over to government authorities in each district. The second campaign called 'Onam with them' urged viewers to donate a little bit of what they had kept aside for Onam celebrations to those impacted by the floods.
Although flood waters have receded in almost all places, Kerala faces the monumental task of cleaning and repairing, so that people from relief camps can go back to their houses. Asianet News has arranged 50 Mahindra jeeps to transport NSS volunteers in Chengannur, one of the regions worst affected by floods, to clean houses.
Many channels are planning to collect funds for fishermen whose boats were damaged during rescue missions.
The bigger news networks like Manorama and Asianet deployed as many reporters as possible on the ground, and telecast live updates continuously on both rescue and relief. Many reporters were stranded in places like Cheruthoni and Munnar, without food or a proper place to stay. With mobile networks crashing, they had to wait for hours to send information to the channel headquarters.
But through the crisis, even when reporters on ground knew their own houses were flooded and were reporting from precarious situations, they kept their calm. There was hardly any screeching or blame-games, even when highly distressed people called the channels or confronted reporters on ground, they were mature. There were aberrations, but largely a lesson for media elsewhere.
As Johnny Lukose points out, "This was a time to help people and put out facts. This was not a time to claim who broke a news first, got the first visual or who helped who."