The Annular Solar Eclipse, best seen from northern Sri Lanka and southern India on 15 January 2010, was not only a rare celestial event; it also marked a turning point in how the mainstream media (MSM) and new media cover a wide-spread news event (albeit a highly predictable one).
Where the island of Sri Lanka was concerned, it was the first solar eclipse of the broadband internet era — and that showed.
The last solar eclipse seen in Sri Lanka was two generations ago, on 20 June 1955. That was almost pre-historic in mass media terms. The newly independent Ceylon had a single, state-owned radio station and a handful of newspapers. There was no television, and the internet was not even conceived.
Yet, paradoxically, the media’s influence over the 8 million people then living on the island seem to have been greater at the time. As astronomer Dr Kavan Ratnatunga recalled: “A quack physician cum astrologer, recommended that women wanting to become fair and lovely should drink a decoction of which the main ingredient was “Vada Kaha” (Sweet Flag or Acorus Calamus) at the time of the total eclipse, preferably unseen by others. Many who took his advice ended up in hospital.”
In contrast, in 21st Century Sri Lanka, the January 15 eclipse was not much of a news story. I don’t claim to have done a systematic analysis, but my impressions are drawn from scanning the major newspaper websites in English and Sinhala, and surfing the dozen or more terrestrial (free-to-air, not cable) TV channels that were on the air during the three hours or so of the eclipse. (Sorry: I missed out radio, and I’m not proficient in Tamil.)
Broadcast television was my biggest disappointment. Solar eclipses are a visual spectacular, and literally heaven-sent for live television. Yet, not a single Lankan TV channel carried a live broadcast of the event, either from northern Sri Lanka where it was best seen (in its annular form, with ‘ring of fire’ effect), or from elsewhere on the island as a partial eclipse.
It seemed as if the Colombo-based media were completely preoccupied with the intense build-up to the presidential election scheduled for 26 January 2010 — a case of politics eclipsing the solar eclipse?
But there were a couple of honourable exceptions – and thank heavens for that! One was the leading Tamil daily Virakesari, which sponsored an expedition to Jaffna, in northern Sri Lanka, by a group of professional and amateur astronomers from SkyLk.com. According to one member of this expedition, Thilina Heenatigala, this newspaper provided the widest and most uptodate coverage of the annular eclipse from Jaffna.
SkyLk.com collaborated with the Hindu College in Jaffna, whose playground was converted into an open air observation camp. Thilina says over 2,000 people – including school children and adults – had converged to witness the event. A large screen was set up on to which the live image from a telescope was projected.
Not far from there, a group of engineering students and teachers from the University of Moratuwa was doing a more scientific observation. Later that day, team leader Dr Rohan Munasinghe reported in an email: “We have recorded the solar eclipse from Kayts (lat 9d,37m N, Long 79d,58 E), the biggest island off Jaffna Sri Lanka. We have timestamped the video with GPS (Garmin 18) accuracy.”
The Sinhala Sunday newspaper Rivira was part of this university expedition. Its science editor Tharaka Gamage, himself an astronomy enthusiast, reported from the eclipse’s ground zero for his readers.
Elsewhere across the island of Sri Lanka, there was plenty of interest among the people from all walks of life — as seen from the thousands who stepped out during mid-day to take a peek at the celestial phenomenon. Not all of them followed the safety precautions to prevent eye damage, disseminating which the media had done a good job in the preceding days.
Clearly, this high level of public interest was not reflected in how the rest of Lankan mainstream media covered the eclipse. But if the mainstream media’s gaze was firmly fixed on the gathering election storm on the ground, the new media created opportunities for others to step into that void. Citizen scientists joined hands with citizen journalists to capture and share the eclipse with each other — and the world. These unpaid enthusiasts used commonly available digital tools and online platforms for this purpose.
Some of them uploaded dozens of photos for public viewing on image sharing sites like Flickr. A good example is what Shehal Joseph and Romayne Anthony did. There were many others.
SkyLk.com group was more ambitious: they actually webcast the eclipse live online from their public observation camp at Hindu College grounds. Stuck in Colombo with its sub-optimal viewing conditions for this eclipse, this was the best chance for people like myself to catch the annular part of the phenomenon.
“We were struggling with bandwidth limitations most of the time,” Thilina Heenatigala says. “We used a Dialog HSPA modem to connect to the web, and line speeds kept fluctuating. We were not the only ones uploading still photos or video to the web from different locations in northern Sri Lanka — and apparently all of us were slowing down each other.”
Being the tech-savvy planner he is, Thilina had alerted Dialog telecom company about the likely peaking of bandwidth demand. But he is not sure if any temporary enhancing was done, even though Dialog currently claims to be the ‘first and best’ to offer telecom coverage in the north. Certainly, the live eclipse webcast was not of uniform quality — it’s a small miracle it happened at all: until a few months ago, this was part of the theatre of war in northern Sri Lanka.
In fact, SkyLk.com had used the web to build up public awareness and interest using video trailers on YouTube. Here is one of several simulations they had up from December, thus one for Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka (simulation):
In the end, however, SkyLk.com became a victim of its own success. The live webcast was followed by hundreds, and then thousands of online visitors from different parts of the world. This apparently overshot the usual allocations provided by the offshore hosting company (in the US), which suspended the account. Right now SkyLk.com website is not accessible (as at 16 January 2010, 15:00 UTC/GMT).
Within hours of the eclipse, several individuals and groups also uploaded highlights of their eclipse videos on to the YouTube. Here are the most striking ones I came across in a quick search:
Solar Eclipse 2010 Sri Lanka Scientific Record – by University of Moratuwa
Scientific recording of the annular solar eclipse on 15 January 2010 was carried out from the Island Kayts (Lat +09d 37m North and Long +79d 58m East) of Sri Lanka.
Orion Video’s coverage from Nallur, Jaffna:
Not in the same league as the above two videos, this was Nishan Perera’s personal observations from Ratnapura, south-western Sri Lanka:
It’s too early to draw firm conclusions from this random evidence, but in all likelihood, we passed thresholds in both citizen journalism and citizen science with this eclipse. Clearly, the mainstream media’s monopoly/domination over reporting of such an event has been shattered: their indifference will no longer stand in the way of information and images being disseminated.
Perhaps just as important, it is no longer possible for a couple of self-appointed ‘public astronomers’ to dominate the public information channels on an occasion like this, mostly for shameless self-promotion. As Dr Kavan Ratnatunga, President of the Sri Lanka Astronomical Association, noted in an article: “I am amazed as to how many who have never even seen a Solar Eclipse, will gladly talk about it to an equally ignorant journalist, resulting in some totally misleading and sometimes hilarious information being published in both the English and Sinhala media. In a nation which believes in pseudo astrology, I am sure it is just a matter of time before quacks start using it to predict influence on local events and politics. However, there is absolutely no influence on any person by any of these celestial events.”
At the end of the day, however, astronomy aficionados are emphatic that no amount of media coverage can really substitute the experience of being there and experiencing it ourselves. As Kavan says: “A solar Eclipse is event which must be experience and observed. No video can do justice to that experience. It can also become addictive. In the modern age when the Internet and TV can bring events to your home, one may wonder why some Eclipse chasers travel round the world to see an Eclipse of the Sun.”
The next solar eclipse visible from Sri Lanka will be on 26 December 2019. I wonder what kind of media and ICT landscape would cover that event…