Pandemic lessons from Kerala, the Indian state that 'slayed' coronavirus

Authors: Sreedharan, C., Priya, K., Thorsen, E. and Rani, P.

Conference: Rethink Impact: 9th European Communication Conference, Complexities in Navigating Strategic Mass Communication in the Covid-19 Context

Dates: 19-22 October 2022


How countries have dealt with Covid-19 differs widely, depending on their crisis management systems and journalistic infrastructure. But a macro-level perspective often masks important nuances within large nation states – particularly, in the smaller, regional ‘disaster communities’ (Mathews & Thorsen 2020), which are often forgotten realms, despite being home to populations larger than many countries.

This paper illuminates one such case study, that of the south Indian state of Kerala, with a population roughly the size of Canada. The ‘mediascape’ in Kerala offers an interesting convergence due to the state’s social, political, and economic set-up, and Kerala was unique in its approach to crisis communication measures against Covid-19. The state had effectively managed the disease-spread initially, with its quick approach to tracking and tracing, and extraordinary support to patients and people under quarantine. It also tackled misinformation through productive campaigns and daily press conferences, and collaborated with the news media to avoid fear-mongering (Sadanadan 2020).

While the above points to a robust crisis reporting trend, the existing literature on news coverage of the pandemic across the world suggest that news outlets by and large adopted several counterproductive crisis practices, playing into, among others, certain biases that corrupt news selection and presentation (Porter & Evans 2020). During Covid-19, news reports also appear to have played a part in politicising the pandemic to serve ideological interests (Abbas 2020).

This paper is situated within this context, to illuminate the crisis communication and health messaging mediated by news outlets in Kerala. For this, we make use of a content analysis of pandemic-related news that appeared in two leading newspapers in Kerala: Malayala Manorama (Malayalam language newspaper, daily circulation 2.3 million) and the New Indian Express (regional English newspaper, daily circulation 310,000). We analysed the news content between 31 January 2020, when reports confirmed the first Covid infection in Kerala (and India), and 31 July 2020––the six-month period when the pandemic was at its rawest.

This resulted in a content analysis of 3,084 articles. Our analysis focussed on primary and secondary themes in the news reporting of Covid-19. We then conducted a source-analysis to identify those given a voice in communicating the crisis, and what they spoke about, allowing us to offer a granular analysis of the boundaries of source expertise within given topics. To provide a deeper understanding, we further draw on 12 semi-structured interviews that we conducted with journalists involved in the pandemic coverage.

We profile how journalists emphasised official narratives, relying heavily on ‘elite’ sources; and how medical and scientific experts were drawn on considerably less. Our analysis outlines the extent to which the watchdog function of journalism was compromised in the first six months, hijacked as the coverage was by a pronounced focus on morbidity and mortality updates. Through a thematic analysis of our interview data, we then probe the economic, cultural, and professional constraints journalists faced while producing the coverage, and offer a considered critique of the crisis journalism in the state that received global praise for ‘slaying’ coronavirus.

Source: Manual