As has often been reiterated, the news media are best known for their professional qualities during times of crises. Described as the Fourth Estate—equated with the executive, legislative and judicial institutions—of the state, the Press has come to be recognised as an essential presence. It is expected to follow and verify potentially interesting tips and clues; monitor activities, developments, processes and decisions of significance; and gather information of particular relevance to especially its target audiences. The real test is not in lofty goals and claimed performance but the delivery, particularly at times of crunching crises. Time and again the news media have attracted extra attention from their publics, and with mixed ratings and results. In the current crisis created by the spread of COVID-19 across the world covering some 200 countries, it is the combined efforts of the media that keep people abreast of the causes and effects of the pandemic. News media offer reportage about to what state agencies, medical institutions, voluntary organisations and individual initiatives have been pressed into service for addressing the mammoth task at a time when fear soars high.
Crisis the leveller The type and scale of the ongoing consequent shutdowns, lockdowns and business downturns fuelling fear far and wide has not been witnessed for generations. The media in the areas thus affected face a daunting task in discharging professional duties, defined and expected by a wary public. The abrupt disruption in daily activity wrought by the 2015 earthquake threw things out of gear for millions of people in various districts, including the Kathmandu Valley. Severe lockdowns have marked the bid to prevent (or slow down the spread of) COVID-19. In Nepal, the government urged the media not to disseminate misleading news. The appeal should have been supplemented by seeking the support of organisations like Press Council Nepal and Federation of Nepalese Journalists. Most major broadsheet dailies came out with reduced number of pages and thinned out to eight pages after two or three days. Some dailies were caught off guard, having carried commercial advertisements announcing which movie was on screen in which cinema hall in the capital, even as the big screens were all closed. The embarrassment lasted for only one day. Virtually all leading weeklies had decided to stay out circulation even before the government’s initiative. By mid-week, the print media virtually came to a grinding halt. The country’s two oldest existing daily newspapers, the Gorkhapatra and The Rising Nepal, keep holding the print fort, even with reduced size. Lack of speeches, routine announcements had shaken the very foundations of the 16-page girth of more than a dozen leading broadsheet dailies. Likewise, the news bulletins aired by the several hundreds of radio and TV channels are forced to overstretch their contents in discussing issues overly threadbare with repetitive angles and topics. Journalists are tasked for stories on the impact and implications of the current developments, whose overwhelming lion’s share is taken up by the coronavirus pandemic. Cross-cutting issues, in close coordination with the health beat reporters, can produce brilliant stories pertaining to people, places, personalities and their problems. Unusual sights, attention grabbing incidents and the brighter side of human spirit displayed locally, regionally or globally are what make stories interesting. Fortunately for today’s journalists even in least developed countries, technology has reduced distance, added to proximity to news sources and events, and offered the speed their peers in earlier generations did not have. The international press, claiming global breadth, betrayed bias for their own narrow local considerations when they gave live and long coverage to issues and events of the immediate interests of their headquarters of origin.
Panic over panic An opinion piece by Jean-Pierre Armand, oncologist based in Paris, noted, “China’s experience is very valuable and can help Europe avoid detours.” This story carried by Xinhua would seem to be beneath the professional dignity of the leading Western media. Nor would they think it deserving to carry their own stories on such topics portraying in positive terms an ideological opponent of all-out capitalist governments. An article in the British publication, The Spectator, wondered if European Union-ism would be redefined by the manner in which there was a scramble for protecting their own, and in the melee the collective spirit was absent. Hardest hit by the pandemic, Italy lacked surgical masks and ventillators but was deeply pained by France and Germany’s refusal to share a supply from their relatively better stocks. The incident reiterated how birds of same feather flock together, and look after each other on greater scale than after others. Their priorities have borders. Such incidents could be reported and analysed at greater length in the media, sourcing the many channels of information made available by internationally legitimate and professionally credible channels. Chinese effort at controlling COVID-19 did not get the sympathy—let alone empathy—it deserved. Even as China suffered the horrendous crisis before it slowed down, some news media with international audiences took to severely criticise the communist country’s “lop-sided” efforts. Such critical comments, however, petered out coinciding with the contagious infection’s arrival on the shores of especially Europe and the United States. Even after China began recording a clearly flattening of the epidemic graph, the Western press was conspicuously reluctant to discuss adequately the steady turnaround. In fact, not only Western governments but also their media miserably failed to appeal for early preparations against the dreaded disease. Since more than a fortnight, China has offered and delivered aid and assistance to foreign governments. Italy was quick to seize the opportunity. Others followed suit. The hard-hit Europe received the Chinese offer with relief. Protective suits, respiratory masks, ventillators and the like together with medical personnel have been rushed to various countries. In a gesture that brought to the fore, a new side to the world’s most populous country’s approach to providing aid. No swaggering or vulgar publicity was exhibited in aid delivery. This time, Confucius was subtly not recalled. Instead, the philosopher Seneca of ancient Rome was quoted during the times of fear and crisis. Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Geng Shuang cited Seneca, “We are waves of the same sea, leaves of the same tree, [and] flowers of the same garden.” The subtlety could not have escaped the notice of the eagle eyes specialising in such semantics and signals.
(Former chief editor of The Rising Nepal, P. Kharel has been writing for this daily since 1973)