COVID-19 has wreaked havoc across the world. The deadly disease has infected millions and claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands. Fortunately, far fewer people have died in India than many other countries that have been ravaged by the outbreak. But, as witnessed by the numerous tragic deaths of migrants in accidents, the virus isn’t the only killer in this lockdown.
India is no stranger to deaths caused by accidents. As per a ministry of road transport and highways report, road accidents had claimed over 1.5 lakh Indian lives in 2018. In the same year, as per the World Road Statistics report, India ranked 1st in the number of road accident deaths across the world.
In this backdrop, the deaths of over 130 migrants from the beginning of the lockdown seem like a minor figure. In purely statistical terms, it is. This has led some to question the attention given to the deaths of migrants by the media. What could justify, they say, the personalized stories of migrants being given so attention by the media, when the number of deaths is relatively minor? Behind this question is an implicit assumption that the media should confine itself to reporting only the hard facts (which, in this case, would be the number of deaths) and not focus too much on reporting the painful personal stories.
As a student preparing for the current affairs section of various exams, I am guilty of having asked similar questions in the past. An MCQ question only asks the hard facts of the matter. So, while reading articles in newspapers with the sole objective of collecting information, I often considered the personal stories of human plight to be little more than just a few lines which have to be skipped to reach the hard facts of the matter. But the depiction of human tragedy in the media, and not just the hard facts, is of immense importance.
Human beings can adapt quickly to their surroundings. I remember reading an account of a woman who recounted the rape of her friend. Stuck in the middle of a warzone, and afraid for her own safety, she concealed herself inside a closet and could do nothing but see her friend being forced to the ground and set upon by two-legged animals. Any person who witnesses such a horrific act would no doubt be driven to tears while recalling it. But that woman was completely dispassionate as she recounted the event. In fact, she spoke in a matter-of-fact tone as if the incident wasn’t a crime against humanity.
This is what happens to people who have been desensitized by the misery of the world. The woman had been surviving in a warzone and her conscience had adapted to its cruelty. Brutality was no longer a stranger to her. While most of us will never be plunged into circumstances which would desensitize us to suffering to this extent, a layer of apathy does cover our hearts which makes us unconcerned about the plight of the fellow man. This is exactly where journalism with a human touch can help because journalism is much more than just reporting hard facts. It is about bringing change by appealing to the humanity of humans. And this is where the role of the Indian news media has been pivotal.
Right from the beginning of the lockdown, the media has incessantly reported the pitiable condition of the migrants. It has reported not just the hard facts but also the stories of hunger, homelessness in cities, brutality at the hands of the authorities, and arduous journeys by migrants to reach their native states. And these reports haven’t just been tucked away in some small box of an inside page or the bottom of a web page. The reporting has been extensive and intensive. Due to this, the stories of deprivation are no longer far and distant. They have become immediate and personal. In fact, the result of this coverage has been so positive that even the Madras HC said this: “One cannot control their tears after seeing the pathetic condition of migrant laborers shown in the media for the last month. It is nothing but a human tragedy.”
In the past, the important role of the press has been highlighted in Amartya Sen’s research into famines. His research showed that dissemination of information on an impending famine through press coverage can help prevent its development. This happens because in a democratic setting, as soon as the news of hunger reaches the conscience of the country, the authorities are forced to act and remedy the situation. The prevalence of famines in British India and their absence in independent India is due to this fact.
Personalized media coverage of the plight of migrants has had a similar effect in bringing about positive change. As reports of deprivation reached the conscience of the country, it put pressure on the powers that be who consider conscience itself to be a frivolous luxury. The central government’s belated effort to return migrants to their home states is a result of this pressure. It was widespread criticism that forced the defiant Karnataka government to resume train services for migrants. Mere numbers in the news did not lead to this outcome. It was the personalized depiction of the suffering of the migrants by reporting stories of their anguish and of their loved ones that brought about this change. And this is why journalism with a human touch is important.