How the TRP Race For a ‘Jumbo’ Rescue in Odisha Claimed a Scribe’s Life

The death of known television journalist, Arindam Das, raises several questions about news media's race for TRPs.

4 min read
<div class="paragraphs"><p><em>OTV</em> reporter Arindam Das lost his life covering rescue operations in Odisha's Mahanadi river.</p></div>

On 24 September, I woke up to the news of an adult elephant stranded in the swirling waters of Mahanadi near the Mundali barrage of Cuttack. Within the next couple of hours, what followed was a bolt from the blue for the whole state, especially the media fraternity.

Known television journalist from OTV, Arindam Das, died while reporting live on the elephant 'rescue' operation from a dinghy. Along with OTV cameraman Prabhat Sinha, he accompanied the Odisha Disaster Rapid Action Force (ODRAF) team when the dinghy capsized in the swollen river.

The whole incident, broadcasted live on television by most of the odia news channels, showed the ODRAF dinghy getting caught in a whirlpool near the drop-down point of the barrage within minutes of approaching the elephant and the sheer pandemonium by the onlookers in the Mundali bridge that scared the animal.


Botched Up Operation and Unanswered Questions

Almost twelve days into the incident that left Arindam and ODRAF jawan Sitaram Murmu dead, there are many pertinent questions yet to be answered by the ODRAF and OTV officials.

Why were the OTV journalists allowed to accompany the rescue boat when they were not trained in swimming? Are there no SOPs that journalists and rescue jawans must adhere to while working in a hostile zone? Was there a need to 'rescue' an animal that knows to swim? Can a few people on a dinghy nudge an elephant weighing more than two tonnes to change its path and move to the shore?

Elephants are known to be excellent swimmers and can cross rivers without any problem. Trapped in the water for over three hours, the tusker had attempted to wade to the shore but turned back frightened, seeing a swollen river and noisy crowd above the bridge.

Hundreds of people stood on the bridge filming the whole incident with hardly any official to manage the frenzied crowd. The first step towards addressing this situation should have been imposing prohibitory orders. Crowd control was missing, leading to the elephant not getting a safe passage to move to the shore. Sadly, even the animal didn't survive.

It is also shocking that the ODRAF, which has done commendable rescue operations across India, allowed two untrained mediapersons to be a part of this impracticable rescue operation when it involved significant risk and was unimportant. About forty odd journalists reported the same story live from the bridge with hardly any difference in the video footage.

It is noteworthy to mention that OTV is one of the first media houses in Odisha that started using drone cameras to cover important state events. If not for grabbing eyeballs through an exclusive live report with a "piece to camera" from the rescue boat, I can't think of any reason for not using a drone camera in this situation.

Mad Race for TRPs and No SOPs for Disaster Reporting

News reporting by the local news channels of Odisha is rife with sensationalism. Newsrooms are primarily being driven with the goal to increase Television Rating Points (TRP), with core responsibilities taking a backseat. Stories with no newsworthy content are often dramatised to draw the attention of the audience, and undue pressure is put on reporters to go the extra mile even when that is not needed.

Arindam Das was the face of OTV when it came to disaster reporting. Every time a cyclone rocked the state, one would see him give live updates in a raincoat while balancing his umbrella and boom mic amidst the ravaging winds.

He was of a rare kind. He loved challenges and took additional risks to show the unadorned facts. Though his work was appreciated by many, is it necessary for journalists to do live reporting during the landfall process of a cyclone or give a piece to camera while in a hostile situation? Shouldn't media organisations draw a line for journalists covering reasonably risky beats to ensure their safety?

Das was not trained to deal with the risks involved in disaster reporting. All we know is he was an experienced reporter who covered disasters with ease. Let's be clear here — there is a fair amount of risk in covering natural disasters, and getting onto the field requires an assessment of the risks involved. News organisations and their managers have a more significant role to play here in drawing the necessary boundaries. Following certain dos and don'ts are essential, and issuing a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) to journalists is a must before sending them on assignments involving risk.


Shouldn't Newsroom Managers Be Responsible?

When asked by Newslaundry if OTV has SOPs for journalists covering natural disasters, editor Radhamadhab Mishra refused to comment, citing "investigation is under process" as the reason.

OTV's co-founder and managing director, Jagi Mangat Panda, came up with a slipshod statement in her tweet: "terrible loss despite taking safety precautions”. A mere 'life jacket' is the precaution in a swirling river?

A video on different social media platforms showed a senior journalist mentioning how Arindam was passionate about covering challenging stories. This adrenaline rush pushed him to chase stories, cover cyclones, even while risking personal safety.

If reporters do not follow standard practices and protocols while reporting, shouldn't newsroom managers ask them to rethink their choices for the greater good? With many youngsters choosing their role models from the industry and opting for journalism as a career, SOPs should be drafted if media houses don't already have one.

Let's not set a dangerous trend for young journalists by glorifying the acts where no prior risk assessment is done and reporting from the edge is normalised. It will be a gross mistake if we continue to do so.

News organisations like Reuters give intensive training to their reporters before sending them to high-risk areas. As a way forward, all news organisations should do the same.

Even though a probe has been launched into the matter by the Odisha police, there are vital questions still waiting to be answered by OTV and ODRAF officials. I am sure the monetary compensation, a scholarship in his name and the "Arindam Das Amar Rahe" eulogies on social media would neither answer his grieving sister's questions nor help hold people/organisations accountable.

(Uttirna is a communications professional and journalist based out of Odisha. She can be reached @uttirna96 on Twitter and Instagram. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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