Leading cancer surgeon says sections of news industry creating panic on Covid-19, affecting mental health, when what is needed is positivity
Respected Narendra Modi ji,
Let me take this opportunity to compliment the Government of India for managing the Covid crisis diligently. Being a novel virus with unknown behaviour and treatments, it is not an easy task. At the same time, the exemplary patience and perseverance of the citizens of India must be acknowledged, who continue to brave this epidemic despite all hardships.
As we move towards reopening the country, there is a possibility of a surge in the number of infections and a proportionate increase in the deaths. I have been continuously working in the service of Covid 19 patients at Mumbai for the last three months. As a concerned citizen, I would like to bring to your notice that the contents of many television news channels are aggravating the fear of the already traumatized civil society and exhausted corona warriors. With the newspapers being low on physical circulation, television is the sole source of information in these difficult times. Unfortunately, television has transformed into 'views' channel rather than a 'news' channel. What we watch on some channels are not the “information” but an “intimidation”. Therefore, to curtail a resultant panic, there is a need for regulation of the content that is being shown on these news channels. I decided to write this open letter so that it can reach out to the media colleagues quickly and achieve desired impact.
The so-called news usually ranges from unverifiable news of police inaction, medical negligence to apathy by the government officials. While their intention may be to safeguard the interests of the common man, the result of repeated sensationalized presentations of isolated instances is diametrically opposite. It is demoralizing the spirit of warriors (doctors, police personal, nurses, civic officials etc), all of whom are tirelessly working on the frontline. This also erodes the trust of people on these warriors who are, in effect, their only hope in these difficult times. Anonymous sources in the news industry have disclosed that the news editors are putting pressure on the reporters to selectively look for "shocking” stories that would earn them TRP.
Deaths are not a new phenomenon in our society. However, everyday counting of the deaths and scary projections of the future mortality rates by the news channels is mongering unnecessary fear. The negative reporting of the handful of government-run Covid-19 facilities has created a belief in a large section of the society that all isolation/quarantine facilities are death traps. As a result, people are very afraid of getting admitted in such facilities and are constantly searching for beds in the private hospitals, eventually exhausting their financial resources. In the course of this pandemic, I came across a slum dweller who refused to go to the hospital because he was afraid that in the event of death, his dead body will not be handed over to his family! Naturally, he was influenced by the television news and continued to live with his six family members, exposing everyone to the virus. It is a growing phenomenon in many families to shut the TV for overall well-being!
I am an ardent supporter of freedom of speech and expression. I acknowledge that the media plays a crucial role in the success of a democracy. However, these are not ordinary times. They should realize the extraordinary conditions under which the Government and various warriors are discharging their duties. We all are aware of the lacunas in the system. Rather than being an armchair critic, they should offer constructive solutions.
Another example is the reporting of super-cyclone Nisarg in Mumbai. Many of the healthcare professionals were made to believe that the cyclone has unleashed havoc in Mumbai. Most channels kept flashing similar videos of a large boat rocking on the shore, tin roof of a house getting blown away, uprooted trees, waves on the seafront and so on. Such a powerful narrative created by these channels influenced many healthcare professionals to stay at home despite their dire need in the corona care centres. This caused great hardships for the many patients in these centers and their relatives.
The worst are the political debates and panel discussions that are forced upon gullible viewers. The learned panelists go out of their way to either support or criticize the government. In every discussion, a permutation and combination of following happens: The anchor is biased, statistics are distorted, science is rubbished, statements are misconstrued, intentions are suspected, decisions are challenged, actions are discredited, problems are magnified, data is politicised, mistakes are generalized, doctors are blamed, police are shamed, government is framed and the errant are named without trial. In the end, the confused viewers get depressed and lose hope. In the TRP war, innocent viewers are becoming the victims!
What media houses do not realise is their great power to create a perception in the society. The coronavirus may have caused medical illness in a few hundred thousand but it has adversely impacted the mental health of billions. Such relentless negative reporting by certain channels has added fuel to the fire. Although few channels occasionally show a ray of positive news, the darker news always makes a larger and lasting impact on the minds. Our society is desperately looking for stories of positivity, triumph, hope and success. With billions glued to the "intelligent box" due to the unprecedented lockdown, television channels have to realise and stand up with a greater responsibility towards society. I apologise for resorting to writing an open letter on such a sensitive issue.
Your corona warrior,
Prof Pankaj Chaturvedi
Tata Memorial Hospital, Mumbai