Reporting during the deluge

December 07, 2015 02:07 am | Updated March 25, 2016 11:57 am IST

When nature turns ruthless, it becomes a story that numbers alone cannot capture. According to the Indian Meteorological Department, Chennai received 1,487.7 mm of rain compared to the annual average of 649.3 mm for the period between October 1, 2015 and December 2. Even as I am writing this column, the rain is not abating, and the predictions are that the southern metropolis will remain wet for some more days. The total rainfall in and around Chennai is the highest in a century. More than 260 people have lost their lives, many areas are still under knee-deep water, boats have been pressed into service to rescue people, and there is a general sense of anger over the State government’s apathy.

In this deluge, when the city was marooned, it was the agency of the people that manifested itself as a collective voice to reaffirm faith in life and extend mutual help and support. It was a moment to pause and express our gratitude to the resilience of every man, woman and child of this city, who braved all odds to retain their sense of dignity. And it was heartening to note that the journalism of this newspaper acted as a catalyst to this never-say-die spirit of the citizens in these trying times, to cope with difficulties.

Limited briefings, unlimited sufferings

It was an attempt to provide credible news in an environment where there were limited official briefings in the light of unlimited human sufferings. Editor Malini Parthasarathy explained how the newspaper worked with digital platforms to share information alerts in a timely manner. “We realised that there was a need to effectively crowdsource information — curate them and cross-check them. We opened up our webpage for the Twitter handle #ChennaiRainsHelp, which included area-specific information, the availability of volunteers and shelters, and helplines,” said Dr. Parthasarathy. She was justifiably proud of her team’s effort in not only braving the rains to visit the worst-affected areas, but also staying in the office overnight to produce the edition.

The Hindu ’s coverage of the Chennai rains over the last two weeks seems to be a testimony to Stephen J.A. Ward’s stipulations for reporting disaster. He wrote for the Center for Journalism Ethics at University of Wisconsin: “Good coverage of disasters is a skilful combination of the emotional and the objective sides of journalism. The issue is not whether journalists should display emotions. The idea that journalists must be detached and neutral in the middle of chaos is outdated and wrong. In a disaster zone, journalists are not neutral observers. They are part of the world’s response, an essential communication channel for the rescue effort, and for the raising of funds for humanitarian agencies. The choice is not between aloof objective reporting and caring, emotional journalism. In journalism, the emotional and the objective impulses should converge… the best disaster journalism is engaged and objectively tested journalism. Journalism based only on emotion can be incorrect or manipulated. Journalism based only on studied neutrality is not only an inhuman attitude toward a disaster. It fails to tell the full story.”

The Editor explained the structuring of The Hindu ’s coverage in a succinct manner. She said: “We tried to balance three important aspects: human stories, unfolding tragedies, and the heroism of the citizenry. We wanted to provide honest and accurate coverage — without glossing over the magnitude and the scale of damage — so that people could be prepared for the difficult reality that was unfolding.”

One of the biggest challenges for the reporters was to check the veracity of user-generated content and sift real details from scaremongering. With very little official briefing, reporters were forced to travel to check the truth and ascertain the level of difficulties before publishing them. It was the credibility built over the years that stood the reporters in good stead to tap into the lower bureaucracy to prise out details. And, whenever there was an exaggerated report on social media, the reporters put out counter-alerts. The quantum of water discharged from various reservoirs, the details of cancellations of train and other transport services, the real predictions of precipitation from the meteorological department, and the nature of the relief operations that were available were shared on a real-time basis.

In order to reach every reader despite the breakdown in the transportation system and the general travel chaos created by the blocking of many arterial roads, the deadline was advanced by a few hours. Despite these efforts, in one instance, the Chennai edition of the newspaper could not be printed after the pages were made. The staff working in the press could not reach the printing facilities. The PDFs of the pages were quickly uploaded on our website for all the readers. On another day, due to technological disruption, the entire edition was carried in a hard disk physically to the press for printing. In the last two weeks, I have witnessed a form of fusion between the citizenry and journalism where the breach of distance did not undermine the quality of information, but infused it with a sense of participation. By establishing a balance between emotion and content, the newspaper joined the millions of volunteers in addressing this natural calamity.

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