Psychiatrists say that scores of people— from teenagers to the elderly— are seeking help, having been affected by the sensational coverage of COVID-19 by news channels.

A man watching TV Image only for representation.Courtesy: Picxy.com/rajastills
news Mental health Tuesday, May 26, 2020 - 18:49

‘Mahammaari’ (deadly disease), ‘vijrumbhana’ (boom), ‘vistarana’ (spread), ‘udruti’ (severity), ‘Andhra Pradesh lo roju roju ki peruguthunna caselu’ (rising cases in AP day by day) — these are the typical phrases one has been hearing on several Telugu news channels over the last two months, accompanied by piercing background score. While the bright graphics and terror-inducing tone of news delivery may appear funny at the outset, it is to be noted that news channels command widespread viewership in Andhra Pradesh. Prime time news in Telugu is especially popular in the state.

This is why, as per medical professionals and media observers, a section of the news media sensationalising coronavirus-related stories is resulting in serious mental health issues among people with medical history and stoking panic among the general public. 

Andhra Pradesh, which initially stuttered in dealing with COVID-19, even as the YSRCP government insisted on going ahead with municipal elections, is now at 2,983 total positive cases against 2,009 recoveries and 57 deaths.

Recently, a popular regional news channel, reporting that the state government’s inefficiency was the reason for the spike in cases, ran a story asking, “How safe is AP?”.

On the show, tickers (news scroll on the screen) and voice-overs seemingly pointed to the ‘mishandling’ of the crisis while reporters on the ground spoke about measures taken in certain districts by officials. This may leave the audiences confused rather than educated on the issue. 

Another channel ran a story which appeared to show sending people to a quarantine facility as punishment. Some even held ‘medical’ debates with religious and spiritual speakers known for their controversial views. A panelist on one TV news channel went on to claim that there was a cure for coronavirus in the Vedas and Puranas.

This type of journalism during pandemic, however, has not gone uncriticized. Several observers opine that this is insensitive reporting, hardly backed by a scientific approach. 

Speaking to TNM, Dr Ramana Yadavalli, a Guntur-based psychiatrist said, “Few channels are not reporting based on facts and science. The language that is being used is creating panic and will lead to depression and anxiety. There is a risk of coronavirus but magnification of only the negatives will result in loss of idea about the future among people.”

He added, “Such reporting will hamper future steps that would be taken. Reporting on a crisis should be balanced and educative.”

According to Ramana, he is receiving hundreds of calls from patients who were already under depression and anxiety. “These channels have created a mess— that the COVID19 infection in itself is the end of the world. I'm getting several depressing calls regularly. All those calls are the result of sensationalisation of reporting.”

Another criticism has been that channels were leaving out the number of proportionate tests conducted in the state while only stressing on positive cases that are reported regularly. Adding to this, the background score at times seems to be competing with horror movies.  

Dr Purnima Nagaraja, a psychiatrist based in Hyderabad, reiterates that COVID-19 has brought several mental health problems that are often triggered by the media and social media.

According to her, scores of people— from teenagers to the elderly— are turning to psychiatrists following the pandemic and the subsequent lockdown, having been affected by the media and social media. 

Explaining that the visual medium leaves an impact upon viewers, she said, “What COVID-19 has done to us (in terms of mental health issues) is more invisible than COVID-19 itself. It has inculcated fear in us and taken our freedom and made us afraid of every small thing.”

Speaking about media reportage and presentation, the psychiatrist added, “The intention of the presentation might be genuine but it can be toned down a little bit. Else, it can lead to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and anxiety, depression, fear beside other psychiatric disorders.”

Independent journalist and political commentator Prudvi Vegesana said, “This kind of discourse creates fear and anxiety among people as public perception is being increasingly shaped by a ‘biased’ media based on half-truth which appeals emotionally to the public.”

He further added, “Most of these vernacular channels seem to be functioning with an ‘agenda’ and their news debates build a particular kind of political narrative which is high on noise and opinion and poor in terms of facts.”

Telakapalli Ravi, senior journalist and commentator, said, “Tests are essential but (there is) no reason to panic. Educating people in both ways, through precaution and by instilling confidence, is needed. Given the poor health infrastructure and poverty in the country, panicking further harms. Care should have been taken by the media.”

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