Representing COVID-19 Impacts and Responses on Indigenous People: A Multilingual Media Review in the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, India

Harpreet Kaur, Jasmitha Aravind, Chandni Singh, Sreya Ajay, Prathigna Poonacha  | 2022

In times of change, the media plays a critical role in tracking impacts, holding state and non-state interventions accountable, and shaping public discourse. This crucial role as an observer and mediator of change makes the media a critical knowledge broker, especially during a pandemic. The media also wields power by highlighting who is differentially impacted, shining a spotlight on particularly marginalised groups (e.g., media coverage of migrants affected by India’s first lockdown). However, silences in the media are also particularly important, showing where knowledge gaps remain or where public attention is lacking. Recognising this dual role of the media (as a reporter of change as well as a driver of public discourse and possibly action), we conducted a media review to understand how the impacts of and responses to the COVID-19 pandemic are represented in the media. We also examined the frames used by the media to talk about the vulnerability and/or resilience of Indigenous People. In examining the reportage on IPs, we sought to better understand how different groups of IPs are projected in the dominant English and vernacular media, and how this projection relates to larger historic and political-economic drivers.
This review does find that IP concerns have been represented in the media, albeit unevenly. While collectively, the media reports give a broad idea of the impacts on and responses of IPs in the NBR during the pandemic, silences around pre-existing vulnerabilities shaping differential impacts and certain livelihoods remain. Notably, the structural drivers of differential impacts, such as poor healthcare infrastructure, low technology penetration, and inadequate safety nets for particular livelihoods, were rarely discussed. In this sense, the media tracked COVID-19 impacts, communicated response actions, and in some cases, held state and non-state interventions accountable. However, the articles often fell back on homogenising narratives of IPs as vulnerable or resilient, falling into easy discursive traps that either romanticised IPs and their ways of living or took on paternalistic tones of IPs requiring handouts and being unable to understand the gravity of the pandemic. Both these extremes caricatured Ips, and we did not find evidence of reflective media coverage that took its role of shaping public discourse seriously.