Waiting for the tsunami to strike

BY Rema Sundar| IN Media Practice | 15/09/2007
Did a tsunami, even small, hit Indonesia after the earthquake on 12th September? TV whipped up a scare, and then dropped the story.

Rema Sundar

The ordinary citizen looks up to the media for fulfilling information needs but in an age of multiplicity of media channels, arriving at the source that provides the most reliable information is really tough. While the print media comes with an inherent time lag in transmitting information, television and the radio are the ones that one turns to, especially in times of criticality. Between television and the radio, it is the former that is preferred for its ability to visually convey the message, real-time.

The media reportage of the situation following the earthquake in Sumatra, Indonesia earlier this week and the subsequent tsunami alert,  can hardly be classified as providing reliable information. As someone working in an organization which has been involved in rehabilitation activities of coastal communities following the December 2004 tsunami, one could fathom the pain and trauma these communities could have gone through when the news, of a powerful earthquake with the potential to generate a tsunami, broke out. Communities slowly  recovering  from the large-scale wreckage caused by the deadly 2004 tsunami have started thinking about a life ahead. At such a time, one can also imagine how crucial the availability of reliable information would be for these people, to decide their next step.  

On the evening of 12th September 2007 television channels were coming out with different and confusing accounts. While all leading channels dutifully flashed the earthquake and the tsunami alert, they presented different versions in their subsequent ¿flashes¿ over a span of 30-40 minutes. Headlines Today, sometime after the tsunami warning, ¿flashed¿ at around 7 pm, that a ?tsunami wave had generated?. It went on to state the location as ?Padang, West Sumatra? and added that the first wave had a height of ?30 ft?. But another version about the wave height on the same channel was ?1.2 metre?. At about the same time, Times Now flashed that the tsunami warning had been lifted in Indonesia. It was also the lead news item in its 7 and 7.30 pm bulletin. Quoting an Indonesian agency, the flash news said, ?Indonesia lifts tsunami warning after quake in Sumatra? and ?No tsunami struck after quake in Sumatra?. The Times Now correspondent from Nagapattinam reported that the people had no information of any possible tsunami from the district administration and that they had been receiving short service messages from various sources of the ¿possible time when the tsunami would hit there¿. In this interval and till about 7.40 pm, Headlines Today intermittently also flashed that ?an Indian-Ocean wide Tsunami Watch is in Effect?.

CNN, reporting on the incident in its scroll news, quoting a US agency, said that a ?small tsunami? had generated. The flash news on CNN IBN only added to the confusion. It referred to the Indonesia Met Dept Head and said ?Tsunami threat likely over? and ?Tsunami would have come in 20 mts?. Quoting the Defence Ministry, it said, ?Tsunami warning in Indian Ocean rim after Sumatra quake?. One was forced to do a rapid flip of channels in an attempt to get a clear picture. SUN News had more to offer. It said that a tsunami warning had been placed after a powerful quake and that the warning was subsequently lifted after a small tsunami had generated. Through  all this time, the channels also ¿flashed¿ the estimated travel time of the tsunami, quoted Kapil Sibal and reported the ¿situation¿ in Andaman. One could also not get consistent information about the magnitude of the quake. While one channel said that it measured 7.9 on the Richter scale, yet another said that it measured 8.2.

When one tuned in again at around 8.30 pm, there was little news to be seen of the tsunami. Save for a here-and-there piece, there was nothing substantial to learn. By 9 pm, the channels had gone back to their set agenda of programmes. At an age when viewers have the choice of multiple channels, the normal practice of any viewer would be to browse channels till he/she feels that they have hit the one which would provide the most reliable account. Also people at risk would want to seek confirmation before committing themselves to any course of action, especially when it involves threat to life.

The next day¿s newspaper accounts on the incidence of the tsunami were not clear either. While ¿The Hindu News Update Service¿ on 12th September at 20.40 hours carried a story bearing the heading ?Quake triggers tsunami in Indonesia; India issues alerts?[1], the account of the paper on 13th September presents a different picture. The story titled, ?Why quake did not cause tsunami? by R.Prasad[2], speaks to a scientist with National Geophysical Research Institute, Hyderabad to find out the reasons as to why a tsunami did not occur. The Indian Express of 13th September, in its story, ?Indonesian Quakes Trigger Tsunami Alerts?[3] speaks of a ?10-foot-high? tsunami.

Did a tsunami, even small, hit Indonesia after the earthquake on 12th September? Does not the viewer/reader have a right to reasonably consistent information across different sources, especially in such cases?

[1] http://www.hindu.com/thehindu/holnus/000200709122001.htm

[2] Page 12 of The Hindu, Thiruvananthapuram


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