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October 17, 1998


E-Mail this column to a friend Darryl D'Monte

Fact and fiction

The media is often caught on the wrong foot when it has to report on a natural or human-induced disaster. Most journalists' knowledge of science is, at best, somewhat perfunctory. This is why they find themselves out of depth in dealing with an earthquake, flood or chemical accident. The problem is compounded by the fact that most science journals in this country have folded and newspapers seem to have dispensed with science correspondents. Specialisation is ceding ground to generalists -- reporters who turn their minds to everything under the sun. In any case, with the advent of the electronic media, there is a tendency to trivialise all news and pare analysis to the bone. It may have also something to do with the fact that science has been downgraded these days, with bright graduates opting for business as a career, rather than engineering or medicine.

When disasters strike, these shortcomings are easily exposed. In an effort to cover up one's lack of understanding, the journalist tends to exaggerate the extent of danger and damage. The case of the Latur earthquake, which took place five years ago, is a good illustration, as has been documented recently for the Maharashtra Earthquake Rehabilitation Project by a team led by Dr Nita Mukherjee. When there is a natural calamity, the first casualty, as far as the media is concerned, is the number of dead and injured. The report, which surveys English and Marathi dailies and periodicals, cites how various figures of the death toll were bandied about. While it is understandable that the press would be sceptical about official statistics, there was little reason to cite guesstimates by unofficial sources, some of whom would have a stake in exaggerating the toll.

Thus a Marathi daily from Marathwada, the region in which the disaster occurred, pronounced that the toll was 50,000. The leader of the Bharatiya Republican Party reportedly told the Maharashtra chief secretary that nearly 75,000 people were killed. A co-ordination committee of NGOs estimated the figure at 50,000. Then chief minister Sharad Pawar claimed that figures put out by the media were exaggerated and six days after the disaster, asserted that only 9,770 bodies had been recovered. Even Doordarshan and All India Radio, normally bastions of conservatism and official-speak, reported that over 30,000 had died, though they covered their tracks by quoting news agency sources. In the final analysis, the death toll was around 10,000.

An even worse case was the so-called 'plague' epidemic that struck Surat several months later. The media literally went into a frenzy, with newspapers vying with each other to produce ever-escalating figures. Since the very word 'plague' conjures up dreaded images of people dropping dead in their tracks, this media scare-mongering contributed in no small measure to the nation-wide panic that ensued.

In particular, because the media reported how people were fleeing Surat by catching trains to Delhi and Bombay, there was considerable anxiety in these metropolises regarding the epidemic. Eventually, this mindless sensationalism also had its impact through the international media, which put India on the pariah list, and compelled tourists and investors to stay away from the country. This alone deprived the nation of several hundred millions.

It was later revealed that it was not plague at all, but another deadly virus which had some plague-like characteristics. This time, it was the official medical establishment which was first off the mark to proclaim that the deadly disease was plague. Perhaps it had the utter confusion that ensued in the wake of the Bhopal gas leak in 1984 in mind: no one knew what the gas contained, much less what antidote to apply, a situation compounded by Union Carbide's deliberate obfuscation. In its analysis of the entire fiasco, the World Health Organisation dubbed the Surat incident as a media-induced scare. Unlike plague, there were no cases of 'rat-fall' where, typically, rats drop dead in their tracks. Neither was more than a member of a family affected, which was uncharacteristic of something as infectious as plague.

The second casualty, in any such disaster, is the attribution of cause. In the recent landslides in hilly areas of Uttar Pradesh, which claimed the lives of several trekkers to Mansarovar, the media was far too quick in blaming the deforestation of the surrounding hillsides which, it alleged, failed to hold back rainfall and caused the flash flood which swept away everything that came in its path. All journalists -- this columnist included -- have been guilty in the past of such cause-and-effect analysis.

However, recent research in Nepal and in the West has shown that in the Himalayas, soil erosion has been taking place for millions of years -- on a geological time scale -- while the history of deforestation is at best a couple of hundred years. At best, the relentless cutting of trees, along with building roads and other 'development' projects, has worsened the problem, not caused it.

In Bhopal, the causes of the world's worst industrial accident were far from being a scientific or academic dispute: it literally meant a matter of life and death. On the night it occurred, Union Carbide India Ltd's medical officer claimed that the gas was not poisonous and only a minor irritant to the eyes. Had people been properly informed by a more vigilant state administration and a more watchful media, they could have possibly known that the best antidote was to cover their mouths with a wet cloth and board up all windows and doors to keep the gas at bay. By running into the open, they actually invited death.

However, the Bhopal disaster is one instance when the media played a stellar role subsequently. Because there was total chaos in the administration and medical establishment, journalists were the first to identify the gas, its toxic effects and the entire chemical reaction that caused the leak. They could hardly be blamed, in the circumstances, when official information was simply not forthcoming, for falling prey to a conspiracy theory.

According to this, a "known" antidote to methyl isocyanate or MIC, which caused the havoc, was sodium thiosulphate, which a German doctor had brought to Bhopal to administer to the victims. The antidote was not given, the media alleged, because it would provide proof that the killer gas contained elements of cyanide, which would cost Carbide dearly in the court trials to follow. In the event, it turned out that this supposed antidote did not produce any beneficial results apart from being a placebo!

A third casualty in disaster is the question of prevention. In the UP landslides, earth scientists claimed that the country had sufficient expertise to predict such occurrences, which was dutifully reported in the media. To be sure, there are several things on which the local administration could be faulted, but surely this was not one of them. It is simply unscientific to believe that this accident could have been foretold, which is quite different from instituting disaster management systems to ensure that the danger and damage is minimised should anything occur. In the case of Latur as well, there was loose speculation in the media about the Deccan plateau becoming an earthquake-prone zone, considering that this was the second tragedy after Koyna. Although the media cited cases elsewhere in the world where quakes have been predicted, it is very much a grey scientific area.

In Latur, where the media could have played a more assertive role is in pointing out that the villagers' fears about the area itself being dangerous were not founded. It was rather the badly constructed stone dwellings which cost almost all the victims their lives. As the Kerala-based architect, Laurie Baker, demonstrated with his designs in Latur, simple precautions could have ensured that in the event of a collapse, the stones would fall outwards rather than on the residents. Indeed, had a more scientific view been propagated by the media and NGOs, it might have saved millions of rupees if houses for the survivors could have been reconstructed in this manner rather than built from scratch.

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