A Deeper Malaise

The Indian media’s failures in covering the COVID-19 crisis

Media personnel maintain distance while interviewing Delhi Government public health employees at a sanitisation drive on 1 April 2020. Biplov Bhuyan / Hindustan Times
30 November, 2021

ON 22 OCTOBER, Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed the nation for the tenth time since the pandemic started. He announced, to great fanfare, the achievement of a “vaccine century.” Hospitals, clinics and health centres across the country had managed to administer a billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines since the beginning of the year. “A hundred crore vaccine jabs is not just a number,” he said. “It is the reflection of the capacity of this country. This is a new chapter for the country, a country that knows how to achieve huge targets.” He went on, “Everyone questioned whether India will be able to do it. Hundred crore vaccine shots is an answer to all the questions.” 

The day before the announcement, television news channels such as India Today, Times Now and CNN News18 broadcast live counting up to the billion-dose mark. Times Now covered the event throughout the day, with the news ticker “Bharat Billion Boosts” running alongside Modi’s photograph. “This is the India Model that the world is now looking up to, from the WHO, the United Nations, to all the developed countries,” a Times Now anchor standing next to a screen displaying the countdown proclaimed. “We have done it, India has done it!” the anchor said as the countdown reached zero.

The next morning, India’s newspapers carried big bold headlines on the government’s vaccine landmark. The Indian Express’s headline was “Vacci-Billion-Nation.” The Times of India went with “100 cr shots in the arm” and the subheading “India now a vaccine billionaire.” Most English dailies even carried the same opinion piece by Modi on how this milestone was achieved. The Hindustan Times carried two pieces alongside Modi’s opinion column. One was by RS Sharma, the CEO of the National Health Authority, on how the vaccination-registration platform Co-WIN was inclusive and dynamic. The other was by Ram Madhav, the national general secretary of the Bharatiya Janata Party, on the Hindutva ideologue Deen Dayal Upadhyay’s “integral humanist philosophy.” In effect, the newspaper had a full opinion page by the government and its supporters boosting its image.

Neither Modi’s address nor his opinion column mentioned the devastating consequences of the second wave of COVID-19, which resulted in more than two hundred and fifty thousand recorded deaths—a very conservative estimate due to widespread undercounting. He also said nothing about the vaccine shortage and the haphazard roll-out that had characterised the past months. The “vaccine century” hype itself came when only a little more than twenty percent of the population was fully vaccinated, leaving the majority of Indians vulnerable. 

This uncritical reproduction of government statements has been one of the recurring themes of the mainstream media covering COVID-19 in India. Publications and news channels have also often given inordinate amounts of space and airtime to commentators who do not have specific expertise and played up less relevant statistics. Most mainstream media fell in line with the government’s directives to boost its image in managing the pandemic. As The Caravan reported in March 2020, Modi asked media owners and editors to refrain from negative coverage. However, even publications and channels that aimed for balanced coverage fell short on many counts. 

Much of this was also because, when the pandemic hit India and took over many successive news cycles, most newsrooms lacked depth in health reporting as a specialisation. All journalists were thrown into pandemic reporting in some capacity. Few had the know-how or resources to interpret the barrage of information about the new, complex and dangerous epidemiological phenomenon. 

BJP members distribute sweets to celebrate 1 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccine administered in India on 21 October 2021. The “vaccine century” hype came when only a little more than twenty percent of the population was fully vaccinated. Altaf Qadri / AP Photo

IN INDIAN NEWSROOMS, the health beat has traditionally been regarded as a soft beat, often assigned to either young and inexperienced reporters or women journalists. 

A veteran health journalist working with a leading English-language daily recalled how editors only considered health stories for the front page when there were large events or disasters such as bomb blasts or disease outbreaks in big cities. A broadcast journalist who primarily covers health said, “Unfortunately a health crisis became a good story when there were visuals of bodies to air, because these get eyeballs.” 

Limited public-health news coverage symbolises the absence of larger public discourse on healthcare. In their book An Uncertain Glory: India and its Contradictions, the economists Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen write that “health is virtually absent from public debates and democratic politics in India.” Drèze and Sen analysed editorial pieces printed in India’s leading English dailies in the second half of 2012 and found that only about one percent of more than five thousand articles were on healthcare. The analysis had a broad criteria for what qualified as a healthcare-related editorial. In an earlier analysis of stories in The Hindu between January and June 2000, the economists found that the paper did not have a single opinion piece on health. They also found that, between 1996 and 1999, the paper featured only five stories on health and education on its front page. Tabassum Barnagarwala, a health journalist with Scroll who worked for the Indian Express for seven years, said she could only recall one health story that made it to the front page before the pandemic. “Us health reporters often cite one example, that of when Hinduja hospital published findings of patients with totally drug-resistant tuberculosis in India, and TOI carried that as a lead story,” she said. 

For the few reporters who did cover health exclusively, reporting largely entailed navigating government-hospital wards looking for incidents of negligence, medicine shortages, and delays in care or human-interest stories. “Sometimes there might be a celebrity or political figure admitted to AIIMS, and we would have to hound the PRO to give us updates on their health, but that was the extent of it,” the veteran reporter said. Editors were disinterested in commissioning nuanced stories on public-healthcare policy or providing adequate resources and time for investigative stories focused on the healthcare industry. Resources were largely reserved for politics or business. “Even if there was a healthcare-related or pharmaceutical-related investigation, it would lose traction very quickly, and we were not encouraged to do any follow ups,” a journalist who has covered healthcare for fourteen years said. 

Feeble interest on the subject ensured that there were few positions dedicated to covering health before the pandemic. Journalists were told that they needed to report on other beats to remain relevant. “When I first joined the paper, they were clear that there was no position for a health reporter,” Sonali Verma, a Gurgaon-based reporter who covered health for a national newspaper between 2018 and 2020, said. “I had to report on health but alongside other beats such as culture or gender. I was a young reporter and happy to get the job so I took whatever role they gave me. But it was shocking that they didn’t have a single health reporter covering the state of Haryana.” Haryana has pressing public-health problems that are largely due to the socioeconomic disadvantages of large parts of its population. “There is so much to report on but any of the reporting that we did was focused on Gurgaon, which was full of private or corporate hospitals catering to the rich,” Verma said. 

Venkatesh HR, a journalist with BOOM Fact Check, researched the state of health reporting in India as part of a journalism fellowship in 2017. He collaborated with health journalists, held conferences on ways to improve health reporting and advised newsrooms. His qualitative research indicated why the beat was not doing well. “The biggest takeaway for me was that most health reporting in India was about personal health and not public health,” he said. “And the personal health part of it is mostly unverified news and reporting of studies without adequate context. These stories were about wellness or how to take care of one’s own body, not about the broader policy issues that affect healthcare in India.”

Previous global disease outbreaks did not prepare Indian newsrooms for what came in 2020 either. A reporter who has covered health and the pharmaceutical industry for twenty-four years remembered tracking from Mumbai the 2002 SARS outbreak in China that spread to 29 countries, including a few cases in India. Reporters used to get briefings from government officials every three or four days. In these briefings, health officials provided very rudimentary information on the spread of the disease across the world, the status of the handful of patients in India and the measures taken by the administration to prevent its spread in the country. “It seemed like one of the biggest health stories of the time but, back then, we used to just report what was said in the briefings as is, there was no scrutiny,” the reporter said. “If you really had questions you would just direct them to the spokesperson. It was a similar scene during the H1N1 outbreak in 2009 as well.” The H1N1, or swine flu, outbreak infected at least ten thousand people in India and claimed more than a thousand lives.

The lack of institutional attention to public-health reporting meant many reporters who were thrown into COVID-19 reporting were unprepared for it. It also meant that public-health experts such as Gagandeep Kang were suddenly facing a barrage of questions. Kang is a professor of microbiology at the Christian Medical College in Vellore and is a member of the World Health Organisation’s working group on COVID-19 vaccines. As one of the most well-known virologists in the country for her work with the rotavirus vaccine, she was also a member of a short-lived health-ministry task force for vaccination in March 2020. Kang told me that journalists who approached her fell into one of two categories: those who were ready to learn and invest time in stories, and those who needed quick soundbites to confirm their existing viewpoints. “Unfortunately, a large proportion of reporters who ask to interview me fall in the latter category,” she said. 

Kang acknowledged the work of independent journalists with expertise in health-and-science reporting who were able to educate themselves and report on the pandemic with rigour and responsibility. Many of these reporters worked for independent digital publications that have smaller audiences than newspapers. These spaces gave reporters more bandwidth to dig into stories, the health-and-pharmaceuticals reporter told me. “There are independent digital platforms and then there are freelancers, who can sustain themselves while working independently, so reporters have the freedom as well as the drive to ask tough questions,” he said. “They have access to more information online as well; they can look through clinical trial registries and other data and find problems there.”

The challenge for those who wanted to dig into coronavirus science was to find time and money. “In terms of investments made from newsrooms, there was nothing organised for reporters that I can recall,” Rukmini S, a Chennai-based data journalist who has closely monitored and reported on pandemic-related data, said. “Maybe a few independently enrolled themselves in these classes and worked extra hard to prepare themselves but, as far as I know, there was no systematic aid from most newsrooms.” None of the journalists I spoke with had been given time or other resources to take courses on epidemiology or virology or any scientific subjects that they were reporting regularly. “We never got any training and it reflects in the reporting,” a Delhi-based health journalist said. 

Since cases began rising in India, in March 2020, bringing the spectre of a major outbreak in a poor and vulnerable population, there have been many stories, columns, shows and panels on every conceivable aspect of the pandemic. The unusual circumstances of the pandemic have forced this exhaustive, and often exhausting, coverage. Prior to this, media houses in India had barely registered public health as a serious subject warranting continuous reporting, investigation and exposure. However, even two years into the pandemic, whether from the general unfamiliarity with public-health issues or other external pressures, mainstream media coverage often skews towards business and political interests rather than public-health values. 

“Health stories don’t bring down governments,” the reporter who has been covering health for fourteen years told me, “and as the pandemic has shown us, they likely never will.”

THROUGHOUT THE PANDEMIC, most newspapers dedicated a generous amount of space to Modi’s comments or statements by government officials, but they seldom carried critical analysis of these claims. When they did, these were usually not given prominence. For instance, the day that The Hindu carried Modi’s opinion piece on the billion-dose landmark, it also carried a data story critiquing the slow pace of the vaccination drive on the next page. The difference between stories that came from the government and those analysing government efforts has been in space and placement, with the latter allotted fewer columns and relegated to inside pages. As a result, the government has been able to get away with a lot. A pliant media has allowed it to pass the buck, dodge or spin questions regarding its role in the COVID-19 crisis and, ultimately, to control the narrative.

On 18 March, the Indian Express carried a five-column story on Modi’s statements at a meeting with chief ministers, reporting that he advised “increasing the number of vaccination centres, taking corrective steps to reduce vaccine wastage and augmenting RT-PCR steps with special focus on smallest cities that are witnessing a surge.” The Hindu’s lead story also laid out the “quick, decisive steps” that Modi said should be taken to curb the surge in cases. The Times of India and the Hindustan Times carried similar stories that were largely transcripts of Modi’s address. 

Newspapers on 18 March reporting Modi’s comments and advice to chief ministers.

Each of these stories quoted Modi on vaccine wastage, listing states where wastage levels were particularly high. The Hindustan Times quoted Modi as saying, “Telangana and Andhra Pradesh have 10% wastage of vaccines. UP has near 10% wastage. More beneficiaries should be mobilised, states should target zero wastage.” The article included his suggestion that wastage in some areas was leading to shortages in others—“If we waste vaccines, we are robbing someone’s right to get vaccinated.”

These reports did not explain that vaccine wastage is inevitable in mass immunisation programmes. In March, the government reported a national COVID-19 vaccine-wastage rate of 6.5 percent, which was much lower than that in previous vaccination drives. “For many other vaccination programmes, we have had an average wastage of ten percent and more,” Rijo M John, a health economist and health-policy analyst, said. “Vaccine wastage becomes a problem when there is already a shortage of vaccines, it is not the reason for shortage.” Modi implied that vaccine wastage was the main hurdle and did not address bigger problems in vaccine access: difficulties in ramping up production, Indian manufacturers’ international commitments or digital registration, which left large groups of people out. The front-page stories reported his deflections as fact. No mention was made either about the fact that many states had previously raised alarms about not getting enough doses from the centre to meet rising demand. 

Since the vaccination drive began, in January, the government’s favoured data points have been the absolute numbers of doses administered. John referred to this as the government’s “vaccine-milestone obsession,” in which any increase in the number of doses administered is presented as a milestone or a record-breaking achievement. In May, when only about three percent of India’s population had been fully vaccinated, newspapers reported that India had become the first country to administer 170 million doses. The number was not a relevant metric to gauge the pace at which India’s large population was being protected from the virus, John said. “In a country as big as India, any statistic in absolute numbers will be large,” he added. “We need to look at vaccination rates here, not on the number of doses administered. Only when a large percentage of the population is fully vaccinated can we attain some kind of herd immunity.”

The health ministry had been talking up recovery rates in its press briefings since March 2020 as a measure of the government’s success in handling the pandemic, and many media houses repeatedly published these numbers as signs of progress. The newspapers did so again a year into the crisis while reporting Modi’s comments on 18 March. According to the report in the Times of India, Modi claimed that “India had done well in combating the pandemic with a recovery rate of 96 percent and a low fatality rate.” COVID-19 is a disease with a naturally high recovery rate, with most infections being asymptomatic or mild. The rate of hospitalisation is a more relevant metric because it reflects how many cases of severe COVID-19 a health system is dealing with and whether it is overburdened, resulting in avoidable deaths. 

The government has kept the media engaged in “positive” stories, creating various milestones for television channels and newspapers to herald. On 17 September, Modi’s birthday, newspapers carried lead stories on a record number of doses administered in a single day. News channels celebrated this as a “mega vax record,” with live updates on data being uploaded to the Co-WIN app. Preoccupied with celebrating the government’s achievement, the media coverage on the day did not raise the question of how the government had enough vaccines for 25 million doses on 17 September, when only 7 million people had got their shots on 16 September. Later that week, Scroll reported that healthcare staff in Bihar carried out vaccinations in the days leading up to Modi’s birthday and uploaded this data on Co-Win on the day. The Caravan reported on 27 September that many beneficiaries received their vaccination certificates on 17 September even though they had been vaccinated a few days prior, while others received certificates even without getting vaccinated.

“What the health ministry says in press briefings is seen as sacrosanct and reported without any critical analysis of the information given,” Rukmini said. “There might be some reports inside the paper that are more critical, but these stories never come together to give one clear picture.” A Times of India reporter who has covered the pandemic also said that critical stories were often demoted to inside pages. “They are seen as not urgent stories, so editors sit on them till they can,” she said. “If you keep pestering them, they might publish a little two column piece in the corner of the first page, but nobody reads those. They read the big lead story and then that’s that. Which one of us reads papers cover to cover anymore?”

A BIG CHANGE in health reporting occurred in the late 1990s and the early 2000s, when healthcare became increasingly privatised and corporate hospital chains came up in big cities. Health reporting no longer focussed on select pharmaceutical companies and government hospitals. Large private hospitals hired public-relations firms to mediate communications with prominent media houses. Hospitals and medical companies flew journalists across the country to attend conferences. They held press briefings on hospitals’ and doctors’ medical accomplishments in five-star hotels, often with open bars. “They would drink and then stuff themselves with food that used to be served even before the press conference started and, when your mouth is stuffed, it is impossible to ask hard-hitting questions no?” the veteran reporter said.

Private hospitals and pharmaceutical companies’ efforts to woo reporters for positive coverage led to a growth in personal-health and wellness stories, sidelining reporting on public-health failures and inadequacies. “There was this PR-driven model of health journalism that relied on professionals from corporate hospitals to get medical information,” Verma said. “This is a very faulty model, and a lot of crucial public-health stories get overlooked because of this model. And I think this model exists in health reporting more than other fields. Even for a beat like education there is more in-depth reporting, and newspapers often have dedicated pages for education news, but that is hard to find for health.”

Media houses partnered with private hospitals or healthcare-associated companies, giving them platforms—newspaper columns and television shows—where their specialists gave advice on health and wellness. Many of these tie-ups took the form of public-interest campaigns, such as the Times of India’s campaign on organ donation run in association with Reliance’s Kokilaben Dhirubhai Ambani hospital. A Times of India employee told me that journalists were encouraged to contact only doctors from the Kokilaben Dhirubhai Ambani hospital while writing about organ donation and that these reports needed to have “a positive message encouraging citizens to donate their organs.” 

The journalist who has reported on health and pharmaceuticals said that corporate hospitals had an interest in pushing the narrative of nutrition and wellness. “This helps them market their preventive diagnostic tests, because labs are not happy just doing the tests prescribed by doctors. The profit is in test packages that they offer to prevent lifestyle diseases.” He said the other impetus came from the growth of the nutraceutical industry—nutraceuticals are pharmaceutical alternatives such as dietary supplements and antioxidants that claim physiological benefits—whose products were more easily marketed than pharmaceuticals. “This is happening because the regulatory scrutiny for these nutraceuticals and nutrition supplements is far lower than pharmaceutical products,” he said. “So there is a framework to ask questions about this, but not to scrutinise this industry.” He added that, since personal health, wellness and fitness were driving the market, the media also covered it. “I think in India, if you really go back about twenty years, India was an infectious-disease market. The top sellers were these combination antibiotics. Now we have a burden of non-communicable and lifestyle diseases and hence all these preventive tests and supplements. This is part of the corporate profit-making model.”

ON 5 APRIL 2020, Prannoy Roy, a co-chairperson and co-founder of NDTV who is best known for his expertise in electoral politics, hosted a panel discussion on COVID-19 called India Coming Together. Roy’s panellists were Naresh Trehan, a cardiothoracic and cardiovascular surgeon and chairman of the multispecialty hospital chain Medanta, Laxman Narsimhan, the CEO of the UK-based company Reckitt Benckiser, and the actress Raveena Tandon. NDTV was running the programme in partnership with Dettol, a Reckitt Benckiser product, with the brand’s logo flashing on a screen behind Roy. Tandon has been an ambassador for the Modi government’s Swachh Bharat campaign since 2014 and a part of the “Swachh Banega India” campaign that NDTV has run in collaboration with Dettol since 2015. 

NDTV’s show on COVID-19 in association with Dettol with Naresh Trehan, chairman of Medanta, Laxman Narsimhan, the CEO of Reckitt Benckiser, and actress Raveena Tandon as guests.

Roy began the discussion by congratulating Trehan for the work he had done for the country during the pandemic, including for having “cured a whole lot of Italians” at his hospital. Roy was referring to Medanta’s care of 14 Italian tourists who had fallen ill with COVID-19. The group of patients had been shifted to the Medanta hospital in Gurgaon from a quarantine centre. Roy then asked Trehan how private hospitals could help fight the pandemic, and Trehan said that the government should create dedicated COVID-19 hospitals, that the Gurgaon administration was building a 500-bed COVID-19 hospital and that, if this facility filled up, patients could seek treatment at private hospitals. He added that, if there were critically ill patients, the private sector “can always help out.” Not only did Roy make basic semantic errors—COVID-19 can only be symptomatically treated, not cured—he gave Trehan his platform to talk up the role of the private hospitals even though he said they should step in as a last resort during the national health emergency. On the panel, Trehan did his job as a prominent representative of private healthcare by defending the industry’s interests. But, when he made Medanta’s offer to “help out,” Roy only said, “That is good to know.”

Not long after, when cases started rising, news reports of private hospitals’ overbilling for COVID-19 treatment streamed in from several parts of the country. “It was government hospitals that had the highest burden of cases, while most people could barely afford to get private healthcare,” Amulya Nidhi, the national co-convenor of Jan Swasthya Abhiyan, said. Nidhi added that, even if the government did not push for nationalisation of hospitals during the pandemic, he wished private hospitals had proactively collaborated with the government. “At the very least, they should have themselves offered services at a minimum cost, if not free, rather than fleecing patients when they were so vulnerable and out of options.” Roy’s conversation with Trehan occurred at a time when COVID-19 patients were being treated only at government hospitals. The Italian group was an exception. The Indians who had been quarantined along with the Italians had been transferred to the central government-run Safdarjung hospital. “This was a crucial time to build trust in our public healthcare and offer the same quality of services to all,” Nidhi said.

Many news channels had shows in which they called on epidemiologists, vaccinologists and public-health experts, but they gave a disproportionate amount of time to hospital and pharmaceutical-industry executives who had no expertise on public health to publicise their own business interests and to defend their for-profit positions. 

Representatives of Reckitt Benckiser were repeatedly called on NDTV for shows that emphasised personal wellness—washing hands—over public-health measures, allowing the company to market its brands. During a fundraising telethon for COVID-19 on 12 April 2020, Aditya Seghal, the company’s chief operating officer for health replied to the anchor Sanket Upadhyay’s question on its initiatives during the pandemic. “Sanket, for almost the last century, our brands Dettol and Lysol have been really at the forefront of hygiene across the world, so this is something we have been doing for a very long time,” Sehgal said. “And, as you know, we have been working with you and partnership first on Banega Swacchh India and last year we changed it to Banega Swasth India, so we know for a very long time that hygiene is the first foundation for health.” 

The Caravan emailed NDTV and Reckitt Benckiser on the nature of their partnership for these shows, but neither responded to our queries. 

Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, the chairperson of the pharmaceutical company Biocon and a frequent television panellist, claimed on Barkha Dutt’s Mojo Story that critics of the rushed regulatory approval for Covaxin had a misplaced insistence on publishing phase-three trial data and that, “in these unprecedented times, you can’t fault any regulator and call them out.” She appeared on other television shows backing the government’s unsubstantiated assertion that vaccine shortages in the country were due to wastage and arguing against free COVID-19 testing. 

Nandan Nilekani, a co-founder of Infosys and former chairperson of the Unique Identification Authority of India, repeatedly advocated in television interviews for vaccination to be linked to Aadhaar despite public-health experts pointing out that this would lead to inequitable distribution because of unequal digital literacy and to problems with privacy and access to other services.

On 18 April 2021, while India grappled with the horrific second wave of the pandemic, Shobana Kamineni, an executive vice chairperson for Apollo Hospitals, featured in an NDTV panel discussion where she said the government could not be held responsible for the crisis in any way. “I don’t think anyone is to blame here except people,” she said in a panel attended by four other heads of corporate hospitals and by the NITI Aayog member Vinod Paul, who helmed the government’s pandemic response.

The interviewers often left these claims unchallenged. They were often senior editors who had not systematically followed public-health problems in the country and failed to ask questions in public interest. Since March 2020, “the health beat was as hot as the Kashmir beat, and so, of course, then everyone wanted to get on the bandwagon,” the Delhi-based journalist said. “Senior editors and reporters who would have never prioritised the beat before are now the face of pandemic reporting.” 

Women wait in a crowded vaccination centre to receive shots of the COVID-19 vaccine in Mumbai on 17 September 2021, which was also Modi’s birthday. DIVYAKANT SOLANKI / EPA

Kang believes that news channels preferred to call people who could provide sweeping statements and categorical answers to questions instead of underlining the nuances of the complex disease. “All of science is about uncertainty,” Kang said. “Are cardiothoracic surgeons or liver-transplant surgeons the best people to talk about the pandemic? Many of these doctors who have little or no training in infectious diseases or epidemiology are presented as experts. If you need a liver transplant, for example, will you consult a cardiologist? So when it came to issues specific to infectious diseases, why did we consult cardiologists or surgeons?” The broadcast journalist who covers health said that channels often chose to call celebrity doctors instead of other relevant experts because “they make for better television. These guys are media friendly, they know how to talk, how to present themselves and we need that for eyeballs.”

In April 2020, The Print published a long video interview with Raman Gangakhedkar, who was then the head of the Indian Council of Medical Research. Jyothi Malhotra, the national news-affairs editor, asked Gangakhedkar many relevant questions that she said were collected from reporters at the organisation covering health and science. But she let slide his defence of the government’s ill-considered strategy of testing conservatively. She even allowed him to draw a false equivalence between testing for COVID-19—a rapidly spreading infectious—and testing for non-communicable diabetes as well as for a rare genetic disorder that one in two hundred thousand people were found to have. “Would you be happy I am making such expenditure?” Gangakhedkar asked, which the interviewer accepted as justification of the government’s strategy. At this point, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director general of the WHO, had advised all countries to “test, test and test,” because “we cannot fight this pandemic blindfolded.” 

On 21 April 2021, R Ramkumar, an economist and professor of development studies at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai, had a hard time making a case for the well-established epidemic-control measure of free vaccination while on a panel on Mirror Now. The anchor disagreed with him, and he was not given adequate airtime. He had to later make his points on Twitter.

The reporter who has covered health and the pharmaceutical industry noticed reluctance by editors and news anchors to hand their microphones over to reporters with subject expertise. “There is so much office politics,” he said. “Experienced reporters, or those who know what they are talking about, don’t get a chance to take the limelight. And, if editors don’t want to relinquish that space, they should then at least educate themselves.”

Meanwhile, many stories that featured the plights of grassroots health workers overlooked asking them for their practical solutions to handling the crisis. Kiran Kumbhar, a doctoral student of the history of science at Harvard University, pointed out that the Indian media should have had more opinions of healthcare workers and paramedical staff, such as Accredited Social Health Activists and auxiliary nurse midwives. “There was so much more to be gleaned from these healthcare workers who were employed in remote and rural areas and could bring narratives from the ground to the forefront,” Kumbhar said. 

Beyond clinical experts from big cities, Kumbhar believes that journalists would have benefitted from interviewing social scientists as well. “The pandemic was not just about a disease and the science behind it,” he said. “It was about our public-healthcare system and patterns in our health-seeking practices. The media did not engage with these aspects of the pandemic at all. People want simple and plain answers to complex questions and, if we serve this need without scrutiny, then increased coverage on healthcare will only prove to be counterproductive.”

Reporters attending a news conference in Delhi on 13 May 2020. Uncritical reproduction of government statements has been one of the recurring themes of the mainstream media covering COVID-19 in India. T Narayan / Bloomberg / Getty Images

The senior pharma reporter told me that he thought some media houses were increasing investment in reporting on health and science. He observed that many new journalists have produced sophisticated and nuanced stories. “This shows that something in the system is working or getting better right?” the reporter asked. “The time has come to give more space to our health-and-science reporters. There are some passionate young reporters out there who can do deep, meaningful investigations and raise the right questions, but they will do that if you train them well and support them when they wish to take over the conversation.”

Other journalists told me that perhaps these opportunities lie only outside of mainstream media and that one should look for funding and fellowship opportunities at international organisations rather than expecting much to change in the Indian media landscape. “Mainstream media needs to do a lot more to equip their health reporters,” the Delhi-based journalist said. “A whole new structure of training young journalists should be put in place before we are hit with another such disaster.”

Despite the many failures of the mainstream media, some journalists still have hope for the future of health-and-science reporting in India. Barnagarwala said that, though pandemic reporting was heavily sensationalised during the early days, it “transitioned from sensationalist to scientific” as reporters spent more time trying to grasp the subject matter. She believes this newly acquired lens will help pave the way for more robust health journalism in the future. Most other reporters, though, remain unconvinced by the changes. They think it may not be long before editors and traditional newsrooms settle back into their conventional views on “softer beats” such as health and science. “Nothing much has changed for the health beat, especially if you remove COVID from the story for a bit,” the broadcast journalist said. “No one cares about the WHO’s sustainable [development] goals or abortion rights or the burden of diabetic patients in India, and I don’t see them doing so in the future.” 

“The public-health aspect of reporting in India is a reflection of India’s abysmal spending on public health,” Venkatesh said. As a consequence, the future of health reporting largely depends on how much news organisations are willing to invest in it. 

“The pandemic served as a reminder that we need to invest in health reporting,” Teena Thacker, a senior editor and health reporter at the Economic Times, said. “We need to pick up healthcare-related issues regularly, examine these issues in a sustained manner.” Some journalists told me that proposals to invest more deeply in reporting on health and science at their organisations were withdrawn as the second wave of the pandemic subsided. Two senior journalists claimed that they were offered opportunities to run verticals dedicated to health reporting by prominent media organisations, which were later retracted. One reporter told me that, in early March, even before the second wave hit India, his editor ordered him to stop reporting on the pandemic and focus his energies elsewhere. “Such is the short-term memory of a newsroom,” he said. “The trauma of the past two years is quickly forgotten and we are back to making news that sells.”

This reporting was supported by a grant from the Thakur Family Foundation. Thakur Family Foundation has not exercised any editorial control over the contents of this reportage.