As the flood waters recede in Kerala and the task of rebuilding the state gets going, there are big and important lessons to be learnt from Malayalam news television. Unlike most Hindi and English language news channels that seek sensationalism and are over the top, the news channels in the southern state stood out for their maturity and calm even under the most stressful conditions.

When the floods peaked, the news coverage remained sombre. People on Twitter pointed to their composure and said they were a reminder of how good television news can be. Viewers commented on their extensive and focused reportage, and calm anchors. In fact, Vinod K. Jose, executive editor of The Caravan, tweeted that “…language journalists in Kerala covering the flood must be a case study in J schools. TV, digital & print reported doggedly, with calm and grit & by doing it got everyone to act. Owners replaced ads with content."

Jose, who regularly watched Malayalam news channels during the deluge, said that they marked out themselves with a very measured tone. “Forget shouting, screaming or raising any voice—it was as if a relative or a dear friend was talking, with concern, sensitivity, but effective and to the point," he said.

Besides, the live coverage was mostly round-the-clock. Jose remembers returning home at one in the morning from office to watch live TV till 3 am—with every district reporter employing the same tone. “No exaggeration, no emotion going out of control, no dramatizing," he pointed out.

Some channels even started separate box items on the screen that identified “fake news" and bust it. There was another scroll for “Good News" that narrated instances where, say, a rescue mission was successful. “Really stressed viewers in Kerala were happy to see the positive stories as well even though the priority was still on informing people what’s happening. There was a heightened sense of maturity, sensitivity, intelligence and creativity in all aspects," said Jose.

Broadcasters claim that the decision to keep the tone and tenor of reporting sober was a conscious one. Said Johny Lukose, news director of Manorama News, a Malayala Manorama group channel: “There were clear directions from the top on how to show news and be mature about reporting. Facts were presented without creating panic. Malayalam words for anxiety, fear etc. were dropped from all reportage and anchoring. We never carried a single unconfirmed information." Besides, there was constant monitoring of reportage, anchoring and packaging so as to ensure that everything was in tandem with the policy, that is, “no sensationalism but true journalism". He said that the examples of slips by the authorities or poor planning were deliberately not highlighted. “No blame game, but coverage with involvement and concern was the message we sent down," added Lukose.

Most reporters worked round-the-clock for more than a week, and they were provided with life jackets and other safety equipment. Even more commendable was the fact that news channel studios were doubling up as help centres. Help desks were set up by several channels to receive distress calls. The information was passed over to the control room and rescue teams.

Asianet News had a similar action plan ready for rescue and relief operations. “Along with continuous reporting, our channel had become in no time a virtual war room with distress calls by affected people flooding from everywhere with requests for rescue. A full-time helpline with 150 of our employees volunteering from various departments was also pressed into action to attend to calls and also alert the authorities including the state government, armed forces, national and state disaster relief workers," said M.G. Radhakrishnan, editor-in-chief of Asianet News.

He added that tens and thousands of calls were attended to and following their timely alerts, lots of stranded people were rescued using choppers and speedboats. “Taking the gravity of the disaster and the need to devote our entire time and energy for those suffering from the unprecedented crisis, we also chose to pull out all commercial advertisements for the next four days," he said. Even Manorama News held back all ads for three crucial days.

Clearly, the Kerala media brands rose to the occasion and were exemplary in their comprehensive and sensible coverage of the catastrophe. It’s now for the others to follow their template.

Shuchi Bansal is Mint’s media, marketing and advertising editor. Ordinary Post will look at pressing issues related to all three. Or just fun stuff.

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