Nipah virus, Kerala floods, and now COVID-19: Malayalam media's coverage of crises offers a model worth replicating for constructive journalism
The Malayalam news media has focused on solution-based journalism thus guiding people in Kerala towards measures or a preventive cure to overcome a crisis like COVID-19 as opposed to peddling sensationalist or communal dribble which are characteristic of a lot of Indian language media
The Kerala Government’s citizen first approach in its fight against the COVID-19 pandemic has been widely praised. Kerala is the perfect example of a socially vigilant administration which has ensured social unity and high standards of civic participation during a massive crisis like COVID-19 .
The media’s active involvement in times of crisis has been a discussion point in many democratic societies throughout the last century. The role played by the Malayalam news media — both print and television — is of special significance in this regard vis a vis the Kerala floods of 2018-2019, Nipah Virus outbreak in 2018-2019 and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Malayalam news media’s response to these events reaffirmed people’s faith in the credibility of news media particularly at a time when media all over the world is faced with a crisis of credibility. But Kerala is not immune to this crisis either. Corruptions of various kinds, affiliation to ultra-nationalist forces, discrimination on the basis of caste, gender and race, and advancement of communal agendas have defined the character of media in the last few decades, including media in Kerala.
High literacy and a peculiar socio-political atmosphere make Kerala one of the highest news consuming societies in India. Many scholars like Robin Jeffery amongst others have opined that Kerala is a classic model of a politically aware society which fosters and encourages a newspaper-reading culture. They also unanimously agree about the influence and reach of Malayalam media in shaping public opinion in Kerala.
However, Malayalam media’s role in crucial struggles related to the social transformation of Kerala society is always a matter of debate.
The media did not play an encouraging role in people’s movements related to land from the early 20th Century to the recent Dalit and Adivasi land struggles, the progressive Left Movement, and the recent Sabarimala Temple Entry movement, to name a few.
The most important factor explaining the reluctance of Malayalam media in supporting these movements could be understood through the ownership pattern as well as the political bias of the leading media houses in Kerala which have always opposed the progressive politics of the state especially the Left parties.
However, there has been a perceptive shift in Malayalam news media in its coverage of recent crises in the state which epitomises constructive journalism. These shifts do not indicate a change in heart for the Malayalam media, but are a result of the leadership and effective functioning of the state government along with high degrees of people’s participation to overcome a crisis. Kerala can be a good example of an efficient political system that nurtures socially responsible media during a crisis.
In all the events of crisis mentioned above, the Malayalam news media focused on solution-based journalism thus guiding people towards measures or a preventive cure to overcome the crises as opposed to peddling sensationalist or communal dribble which are characteristic of a lot of Indian language media.
The most noticeable change during the crises is the local live reporting or reporting from vulnerable hotspots in the state which many have referred to as crisis reporting. As rightly pointed out by Olsson and Nord (2015), disruptions to professional ideology are clearly visible during crisis reporting. Live reporting from different parts of the state thus determined the editorial line rather than media houses approaching an issue with a preconceived editorial policy. The prominence of real time coverage created a situation where media in Kerala couldn’t tamper with the social realities to suit vested interests, if any.
The most critical role of media in any crisis is to provide the right information to its readers/audience. In Kerala, media networks disseminated accurate information as provided by the local authorities. This helped to eliminate misinformation which usually takes the centrestage in times of hysteria. For example, during the Kerala floods in 2018, many people who were stranded called television newsrooms all through the day that then aligned with the state government to help relocate them to safer locations.
The active role of media thus ensured a high civic participation along with the government’s efforts in dealing with these crises. One of the most viewed media events during the ongoing COVID 19 crisis is the daily press conference held by the Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan. The live telecast of such press conferences with reduced newsroom commentary has helped lessen public anxiety and created awareness about the steps taken by the Kerala government thus enabling many to deal with the situation better.
Due to the local nature of ownership of news media organisations and the unique socio-political set up of Kerala, Malayalam news media has always concentrated on uncovering local narratives in times of crises. These reports feature local stories of success about implementation and effective management of such situations thus creating a blueprint for people to follow when faced with similar adversity.
This makes news more need-based and target-oriented commodity with potential for an immediate public action. Malayalam news media’s constructive involvement in recent events of crises is a model to emulate and hopefully inspire other Indian language media to refrain from fanning communalist sentiments and focus on real issues at hand. At the same time, it might be a good opportunity for Malayalam media to redefine its engagement with Kerala society and truly uphold progressive politics.
The author teaches Media Studies at FLAME University in Pune
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