Kerala media in the chase to cover the tsunami
Journalist Vaikom Madhu surveys Indian coverage of the tsunami that devastated the South Indian coastline
Kottayam, Kerala --- It was beyond anybody's imagination that a quake off the distant Sumatra coast could release legions of waves across the India Ocean, chewing up a vast swathe of South Indian coastline, leaving thousands dead.
Tsunami waves rose to ten story heights before lashing the coast and intruding into the thickly populated land, uprooting everything and leaving nothing in its wake. When the initial fury subsided, the path the waves ploughed was strewn with dead bodies, shattered buildings and crushed vehicles, many with people inside.
By the evening internet and print media began to size up the magnitude of the catastrophe. Their assessments fell far short of the actual damage, though. Reports started pouring in of dead bodies being washed ashore or dug out of the 590 kilometer coastline of Kerala and areas in neighboring states where Keralites (better known as Malayaalis) frequent.
Photographers and reporters were pressed into action and some flew to parts of Tamil Nadu-- Chennai, Kanyakumari, Kulachal and Velamkanny--Pondicherry and the Kerala coasts. One coastal panchayat, or village, was wiped out, leaving no trace of its thatched and small houses and many of its residents. Bodies of a few were retrieved or washed ashore days after.
Local Print Media Coverage
Local language newspapers are in close competition for exclusive sob stories, including pictures and details of the missing and the orphaned. The poor living on the coast are the worst affected--life for them has already been made difficult by the prolonged strikes of mechanized fishing boat operators, and now their lives are in utter penury, leaving them bereaved and benumbed.
Nearly a dozen newspapers in Kerala covered the event with words and images so exhaustive that none of the English-language national papers could keep up in the days right after the tsunami hit. Kerala is one of the regions most affected and accessibility for local journalists is excellent, even in remote areas.
Malayala Manorama, the flagship of family-owned Publication House, has a circulation of 1.3 million. Its cross-town rival, Mathrubhumi, a paper that grew up alongside the Freedom Movement, is close on Manorma's heels with a circulation of one million. Each paper is trying to edge out each other in coverage of the tsunami. Both have had, from the second day on, good pictures and colourful stories on their front pages. Manorama produced a four-page pullout with mostly exclusive photographs--a common practice of the paper on such occasions. Many, however, do not appreciate the pullouts because the paper tends to experiment with tacky, unorganized designs. In contrast, Mathrubhhumi created impact with dynamic and quality contents and systematic displays of carefully selected--not sensational--headlines without pulpy language.
Deshabhimani (mouthpiece of the Communist Party of India (M)), Kerala Kaumudi, Madhyamam (which means medium in English), Mangalam, Varthamanam, Deepika, Chandrika, and Janmabhoomi are some of the other papers trying to cover the event, although they have limited staffers. They depend more on television pictures and agencies or sharing with each other. They are far behind the frontline titans who enjoy enviable infrastructure and manpower to edge out rivals. The intense competition has helped create better coverage across the board, but most local readers can ill afford to buy more than one paper anyway.
Headlines blazed on the leading local newspapers from the day after the tsunami struck. Manorama ran a marvelous satellite picture of the emergence of the tsunami from below the sea at the time of quake in Sumatra. The paper also broke a story that 20 children were missing from the coastal Kollam District, edging out its competitor, the Mathrubhumi daily
In a lengthy January 6 editorial, the Manorama lambasted western monitoring agencies for their failure to warn Asian nations in advance, even though they knew that a tsunami was about to lash Asian countries, reporting that organizations such as the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre in Hawaii, knew about the tsunami ahead of time but failed to contact affected countries.
The Rs. 1 billion donation to relief efforts by spiritual leader Matha Amruthanandamayi was the second lead story of the January 5 edition of Mathrubhumi. The paper also ran a deep, five-column anchor story about the inconsolable wail of coastal women. The piece was accompanied by photos from editor M.P. Virendrakumar.
Editorials in both papers, however, called upon people to rise up to the occasion and express their solidarity with the distressed via rescue work and liberal donations. Most local papers announced plans of their own to collect funds to aid in the relief effort. Malayala Manorama, for example, is collecting donations to execute their own housing projects for the affected people of Kerala and other states. They were the first to announce such a project, beginning with their own contribution of Rs.2,500,000/-.
Even smaller papers, with limited or financial resources, strived to come out with the best pictures and side stories of disaster, not in only in Kerala, but Tamil Nadu, Pondicherry, Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka and the Maldives. The extent of the damage in far away lands such as Somalia, Kenya, Seychelles and Tasmania was also covered in Malayalam newspapers and television.
Papers, large and small, competed to cover the origin of tsunami, its sweep, magnitude and speed. They sought to discuss the environmental aspects of the disaster, such as how tsunami affect marine life and the fishing industry. For survival, these local papers had to resist the intrusion of highly-funded English papers into their domain by making an effort to focus their coverage on news items that would be particularly salient to local readers.
By day twelve, most of papers have tapered down their tsunami disaster stories, making space for pieces about rehabilitation efforts and the installation of advance monitoring systems.
National Print Media Coverage
The two most prominent English-language Indian dailies are the Times of India and The Hindu. Both papers editorially criticized the initial $35 million donation by President Bush. Bush’s creation of a core group to coordinate aid--a group set to be disbanded later this week--also came under fire in national media for bypassing the United Nations. The Hindu was especially critical of the US response. In a January 4 editorial, the paper writes: "…it is presumptuous on the part of United States to envisage a 'core group' of four countries (apart from itself, Australia, Japan and India) for coordinating the relief effort …Such a responsibility can devolve only on the United Nations, which has already initiated the process of aid collection."
The Times of India ran an eight-column banner on January 2 for a story about how scholars at George Mason University in Virginia warned that another massive quake would occur in Assam, India. The alarm was rejected by the Indian government because earlier warnings had proved to be false.
Local Television Coverage
There are six local channels in the region, and all began updating news every half-hour, 24 hours a day. Yet most local channels could not keep up with the massive inflow of news and the vast area to be covered. Their ill-trained staff was not used to covering such a calamitous situation. Nearly all the channels are strapped for cash, which became all the more evident in their tsunami coverage.
One channel, NDTV’s 24-hour news channel, had the ingenuity to highlight the importance of mangrove trees in deflecting much of the tsunami’s force in Pondicherry. Meanwhile, some coastal people in Kerala refuse to return to their land unless a strong sea wall is erected.
Shortcomings and Missed Stories
NGOs and locals took on the Herculean task of providing relief upon themselves because the government, bogged down by bureaucracy, was slow to respond. The Collector of the Alleppey District was relieved from government duty for his inaction in the face of untold human suffering. The opposition floor leader of the Kerala Assembly was mobbed by affected people and had to stop his ill-timed pejorative against the ruling party. Media outlets generally played down these incidents and did not generally condemn the government’s lethargy in the face of this great human tragedy.
The Kerala opposition leader, V.S. Achuthanandan, was mobbed in one Kerala village. These coastal victims were furious with Chief Minister Oomen Chandy when he visited the hard-hit Trivandrum coastal belt 24 hours after the tsunami. Other ministers and Panchayath members in different coastal areas of Kerala were criticized by victims for waiting too long to visit affected areas, a sentiment that was not very prevalent in local media.
Another media shortcoming brought into focus by the tragedy was the absence of science editors on news desks or separate science desks to probe the science of quakes and tsunami. It is a great tragedy that even the largest Kerala newspapers do not have scientists, agriculturists, or health experts on their editorial staffs. General news editors and reporters are routinely assigned to handle science stories regardless of their qualifications. This is telling in the stories they produce which often misguide or misinform readers. The "tsunami science" stories revealed this: The news desks just translated agency stories into the language of the paper, leaving readers to try and decipher difficult terms and sentences.
The tsunami was a godsend for politicians wrapped up a scandal known as the “Ice Cream Parlor Case.” The Minister of Industries in Kerala, PK Kunhalikutty was in political hot water because of his alleged molestation of a young girl. The case drew statewide attention for nearly two months, with students, women’s organizations and opposing parties calling for Kunhalikutty’s resignation. Kunhalikutty stepped down voluntarily on December 28 while the media’s attention was diverted to the tsunami. His ruse did not get major coverage in the press.
Many papers covered the tsunami so extensively that they were not able to maintain any semblance of balance, or to do justice to other important stories such as the Ukraine election and Sabarimala Pilgrimage. At the same time, papers, in a flurry to quickly size up the losses, did not seem to capture the magnitude or the human tragedy of the event. Even on a small stretch of land like Kerala, scores of bodies had to be buried in mass graves due to fear of epidemic, bypassing the usual rites allowed relatives. This human angle was not poignantly portrayed by most of the press.
What is most striking, however, is that while even leading Malayalam papers cut corners in content and design, in this time of disaster, even media outlets with meager resources can be active, sometimes hyperactive in providing readers with vivid details and images.
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Vaikom Madhu formerly wrote for the Malayala Manoram Daily, in Kerala, and is now a freelance journalist in South India. He can be contacted at
The views expressed above are those of the author and are not necessarily those of AsiaMedia or the UCLA Asia Institute.
Indian news media mentioned in this article:
Date Posted: 1/6/2005