Increasing redundancy of Indian TV news: Lessons for media from COVID

Celebrated Indian TV editor/anchor’s new book Humans of Covid: To Hell And Back portrays the paradigm shift in the sector where size doesn’t matter when it comes to making a big impact


Joydeep Sengupta

Published: Thu 7 Apr 2022, 7:24 PM

Multiple award-winning TV editor/anchor and now digital entrepreneur Barkha Dutt’s new book, Humans of Covid: To Hell And Back holds up a mirror to the colossal Indian human tragedy, where thousands died and not accounted for amid the first phase of the raging viral outbreak.

Tragedy hit home during the lethal second phase last summer when she lost her father because of a ramshackle healthcare infrastructure that was overwhelmed by the contagion.

Dutt, a Washington Post columnist, who has always been an intrepid field reporter, has distilled her thoughts in the book, a cathartic experience, where the personal and the professional lines got blurred.

Khaleej Times spoke with Dutt about how her fledgling digital platform, Mojo Story, beat the Goliaths of mainstream media in heart-wrenching field reportage.

Edited excerpts from the interview:

Was the Covid-19 reportage the toughest assignment in your career?

Yes, though I have covered war and insurgencies — both at home (India) and abroad, including reporting from the frontline of the Kargil war in 1999 and reporting from Iraq, Libya, Egypt — reporting Covid-19 for two years was, in some ways, the most risk-laden and dangerous because of how little we knew when we started and how much the science kept changing and how long the pandemic has lasted.

You hit the road, despite not being backed by a major news organisation at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. How did you manage to pull it off?

The onset of Covid-19 happened to coincide with the infancy of my digital platform Mojo Story. We were not even a few months old when the pandemic hit. We were a team of four, including our driver, when we left our basement studio and hit the road. In the first wave, public transport was shut, so the only way to travel was by car. We ended up covering 30,000 kilometres (km) and 14 states when we spent 120 days on the road moving from Delhi to Kerala and at one stage even back to eastern Ladakh in May to cover the face-off between Indian and Chinese troops. I think we did this on sheer will power, passion and commitment to tell the story, no matter what. And the feedback we got proves that size doesn’t matter when it comes to making an impact.

How difficult was uncovering the reality when mainstream print media was busy crunching available data and news TV turned the healthcare emergency into a banal political debate?

As a child of TV — I’m a first-generation TV journalist, before I became a digital media entrepreneur — I was shocked at how the medium responded in the first wave. Millions of Indian migrant laborers were leaving cities on foot and TV was busy with studio shows and experts with hardly any ground reportage, save a handful of exceptions. But, of course, sterling work was done by independent digital startups, small town stringers and the vernacular press — especially in the second wave on the issue of uncounted deaths. However, this is further proof of the increasing redundancy of TV news. Most people now consume content on laptops and smartphones. So, for those of us willing to be out there, we were reaching the same audiences TV was.

Would you say your ground reporting changed India’s Covid-19 narrative? If so, how?

I think it’s for other people to judge my work. So far, the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. But I would say our focus on the millions of workers walking the highways, on foot, without food or water, with their small children, covering distances of hundreds of kilometres, was able to shake the conscience of our nation and shift the public discourse.

What’s the most poignant incident that you recall from your road trips?

Over two years many things stay, but some images don’t leave your mind. For instance, the tragedy of Mukesh Mandal, a daily wage painter who sold his mobile phone for ₹Rs2,000 (Dh100), bought his wife a table fan and rations and then took his own life using her scarf. That is an unshakeable memory. So is the interview with a pregnant woman who gave birth on the road as she walked hundreds of kilometres home or the Muslim volunteer in Bengaluru, who helped bury a six-month-old newborn whose mother had also died from Covid-19, or the young woman orphaned by the contagion from her adoptive parents. Her biological ones had already died. The young woman asked me, “How brave am I expected to be?”

Why do you think so many Indians died of Covid-19 when many of them could have been saved?

In the first wave, the humanitarian crisis was less about the pandemic and more about the millions of impoverished daily wage workers who walked home, sometimes dying on the way because of heat or lack of food and water. We don’t have a proper computation for this. Similarly, we saw deaths on the Shramik Trains that were run several weeks later to take them home. In the second wave, the most egregious deaths were from the shortage of oxygen in hospitals and also an acute shortage of beds. Then, there are the non-Covid-19 deaths such as tuberculosis, cancer, renal failure that took place because the poor were unable to get treatment in a public health system consumed by the viral outbreak.

How did you blend the personal and professional into a cohesive narrative?

For me, the personal and professional have always blurred but never more so than this year when my father died from Covid-19 and the news literally came home. I became the story I was reporting as I had to use all my connections to get him a bed but still watched the oxygen cylinder malfunction on the way to the hospital. The ambulance was just an old van calling itself an ambulance. No paramedics were available, and a hapless driver was at the wheel. The driver didn’t even have a backup cylinder or masks or an emergency Plan B. I had panicked and hired a private agency thinking I was avoiding delay in getting him to hospital. It was a huge mistake, and it haunts me. Later that week when he died, we had to fight to get space at the cremation ground in Gurugram, Haryana, and were eventually helped by the police for which we are so grateful.

How important was consent before interviewing an individual amid the unfolding tragedy?

Consent was paramount. I did not conduct a single interview without seeking consent first. Inside hospitals we did not show faces or any identity markers unless consent was specifically given by the individual. Most people, however, wanted to talk — I would say 99.9 per cent.

What’s your first love? Written word or powerful visuals?

I’m trained in visual grammar but think the written word captures history and has a longer shelf life. The written word is for perspective and posterity.

Lastly, would you say the ground reportage could have been better if more resources were at your disposal?

I think that being a team of four had no impact on the quality of our reportage, but surely more resources would have meant more capacity for amplification and perhaps, better, technology — so more resources are always welcome!

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