The revolution will not be tweeted, said Malcolm Gladwell. The so-called disgust for the Indian media in Nepal that triggered a hashtag, #GoHomeIndianMedia, for about 24 odd hours was certainly not expressed by the men and women I met in the villages close to the epicentre, or even those I interrupted while they were pulling out a large rice drum from the collapsed rubble of their house in Kathmandu. Or those who had trekked down for almost half a day when they realised a small medical camp had been set up. I managed to evade television and print for several days while in Nepal. But on my return one of the first things I'd say is that a strong dose of introspection by the media is needed.
When a disaster happens it seems to everyone that the low-hanging fruit is to show the destruction and cycle of death. It's not an easy task when villages turn to rubble, roads are wiped out and the bars of your mobile phone vanish. The media then takes all the help it can to witness first-hand the situation and file their reports. I have taken the help of friends, locals, friends of friends, government agencies -- essentially anyone I know and their father -- to get to a spot.
"[L]et's face it: some grandiosity was to be expected but if it ended up making the tragedy a sideshow, it can't be called journalism."
I am told by social media that the coverage in Nepal turned out to be a public relations exercise for the Prime Minister and his government. On my return I saw some evidence of that. For instance, a graphic sting of a channel where instead of the visuals of Nepal's overwhelming destruction, a picture of our Prime Minister, all-grim, was in focus, the text lauding his benevolent nature. Frankly, I found it nauseating.
But the truth also is that India led the rescue effort and with great competence. It wasn't the story but it was a story in a country where 34 nations came down. In many cases, apart from dumping relief material on the tarmac and taking back their stranded nationals, they did little on the ground. Some worked in small, incremental ways. There were still others who set up small hospitals and large posters saying they stood by Nepal. There were many other countries whose PR machinery set a tent up even before the first stone was picked. So let's face it: some grandiosity was to be expected but if it ended up making the tragedy a sideshow, it can't be called journalism.
Contrary to our experiences in this country of "politics in the face of tragedy", Nepal had an absolute absence of politics of any kind, whether divisive or unifying. When political leaders across party lines come together (even if it is for political capital), it gives a direction or at least a semblance of it for relief and rescue efforts. Nepal was functioning in a vacuum of sorts. Its leaders caught in a never-ending saga of political transformation were conspicuous in their absence.
"The connection between a woman who hasn't eaten for two days and an indictment of the State isn't always obvious but once it is we need to report it."
The country had no dearth of relief material. Its problem remained coordination. Even with many of India's aircraft coming down, the distribution of relief materials remained patchy. In Pokhara, where India set up a base to ensure timely sorties for the nearby affected areas, on two days operations did not begin till 10am despite clear skies. The airport officials opened the gates of the airport premises at 8am. India's technical staff had kept the choppers ready since about 6am. Some had slept close to the machines. On other occasions I saw India's Task Force Commanders and the helicopter pilots land up in the wee hours of the morning at the Nepal's Aviation Centre Base that became a hub of sorts. By contrast, officials from Nepal walked in post 9:30am on many days. At other times I was privy to conversations of our pilots landing on small strips of land with coordinates worse than what a tourist map would have were given to them. They were accompanied by local officers who were sometimes confused by the destruction they saw and how natural landmarks had vanished.
Maybe it's unfair to set down these utterances in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, which has hit the administrative machinery the country as well. Disasters are messy and it is our job to report on this messiness. Rescue operations don't always fit into some neat brackets that make everyone feel comfortable. Our duty in a disaster situation is to report on the suffering we witness, its many ramifications, the people who are bringing succor and those who haven't received a morsel. The connection between a woman who hasn't eaten for two days and an indictment of the State isn't always obvious but once it is we need to report it.
If a few channels made this a story about the PM, there are plenty others who kept the focus on the tragedy and its aftermath. Nowhere during my reportage did I feel even an inkling of what the Twitter trend seems to suggest.
"A hashtag may be many things but it certainly isn't a barometer of the media's behaviour or coverage or of India's effort to help her neighbour."
There are many things that networks don't do well, that journalists (or maybe Indian journalists) forget when they find themselves in a story -- manners for one, sensitivity the second. The once evergreen "Aapko kaisa lag raha hai (How are you feeling)" question has thankfully been consigned to the dumps. We may be used to forcing our way into places and situations in our country. A foreign land reeling under a disaster and with different social moorings may not kindly take to it. But I also saw many instances of journalists trying to do their job and being shut out. They continued to persist.
The broadcast of a tragedy is what sometimes makes it a lasting tragedy. There have been many sensitively written pieces on the Internet addressed to the Indian media about giving water and food packets to those struck by the quake. We must and we should. Most journalists traverse disaster and conflict situations with a knapsack. Mine had a bottle of water, a half-eaten packet of biscuits, a change of clothes and my medicine for migraine, along with a sleeping bag. If my biscuit could have saved someone's life I would have without any hesitation handed it over. But if I thought it would spark a crisis, putting those around or my team at danger, I would have to make the tough choice of not taking it out. You see the last thing a journalist on the disaster zone should be is a liability and take the focus away from a rescue effort or become the news herself.
In my job as a television journalist, I spend a lot of time boiling down experience; the medium sometimes doesn't lend itself to nuance nor to analysis, except of the simplest kind. It generates verbiage like social media, second after second, when people speak and comment, thus making the first ripples of a trend. Frankly, since the media at large does so much of hashtag journalism, it was only a matter of time that a hashtag came to hit us in the face.
But we are well aware of the mathematics and science of generating a Twitter trend, aren't we? The outsized enthusiasm of social media has even made me trend on numerous occasions with my small count of followers. A hashtag may be many things but it certainly isn't a barometer of the media's behaviour or coverage or of India's effort to help her neighbour.