Covering disasters in the globalised media: Beyond what happened…

“In a global information society where there is a constant race for who delivers the news first, such news undoubtedly fill a need — the need to know. But does reporting on disaster, conflict, international politics or other issues, throw up other questions beyond ‘what happened’? Questions like: What does this mean? How did this happen? How do other communities cope? Are the funds being put to good use? Is the kind of assistance coming in sensitive to different communities’ needs? Which communities are left out from receiving aid and why?

“These are some of the questions that beg to be delved into, and are the niche for media organisations, whose mission it is to try to look at the bigger picture and put the issues behind the events in context. This is not to say that some are always better than others. It is a way of stressing that ‘media’ are far from a homogenous crowd, and that different media organizations have different media products, stemming from different assessments of their audiences and mission.”

This is an extract from the chapter titled “The 2004 Tsunami: Unfinished Story”, by journalist Johanna Son for Communicating Disasters: An Asia Pacific Resource Book (co-edited by Nalaka Gunawardene and Frederick Noronha, and released in December 2007).

Johanna (photographed below addressing TVE Asia Pacific staff in August 2007), a journalist for two decades, is director of Inter Press Service (IPS) Asia-Pacific, the regional foundation that is part of the IPS international news agency. A Philippine national, Son was previously correspondent and editor for IPS Asia-Pacific, as well as staffer of the Manila Chronicle.

How many ways are there to report on a disaster? Johanna uses examples from IPS to ‘do a post-mortem of sorts in the spirit of sharing the challenges of covering disasters like that of the tsunami and of learning from one another.’

johanna-son-during-tveap-visit-2007-3.jpg communicating-disasters-an-asia-pacific-resource-book-by-tveap-and-undp.jpg

Here are some more extracts – the full chapter will be placed online in January 2008:

On 26 December 2004, I was in Manila, the Philippines, for the year-end holidays when the newsbar across the screens of international TV networks began flashing reports that “scores” were believed to have been killed by a tsunami in the Indian Ocean. It was, we were told, triggered by an undersea earthquake recorded at up to 9.3 magnitude on the Richter Scale. (This has since been called the second most powerful earthquake ever recorded by a seismograph.)

“In the following hours, the number kept rising – first to “hundreds” then to “thousands”. Even without much detail and description, it was clear this was quite a different disaster. News desks around the world went into action.

“The editor for my region was on holidays in Africa. So I was in touch with our regional correspondent, who was then on holidays in Sri Lanka, and also in contact with a regular contributor from Colombo, as well our correspondent in India. We agreed on a few story angles, trying to focus not on what had already been reported and added little to the avalanche of stories out there, but on how, for instance, the effects of the tsunami interplayed with the ethnic tensions in Sri Lanka.

“A look back at the coverage on the IPS wire — — at that time shows two different kinds of stories in the days and weeks after December 26. Some were more obvious, predictable ones, and other more contextual ones that, regardless of where they were filed from, hew more closely to the news agency’s mission of trying to provide reporting that explains – and not only records what is happening.”

Photo courtesy TVE Asia Pacific

Asian Tsunami of December 2004: A moving moment frozen in time

An Indian woman mourns the death of a relative killed in the Asian Tsunami

An Indian woman mourns the death of a relative killed in the Asian tsunami. The picture was taken in Cuddalore, Tamil Nadu, on 28 December 2004 (REUTERS, Arko Datta)

From every disaster, conflict or tragedy emerges a single photograph that captures its essence in a way that becomes iconic. This image, showing the sheer haplessness of those who survived only just barely but lost everything they had, could well be that for the Asian tsunami of December 2004.

It was taken by Indian photojournalist Arko Datta, who won the 2004 World Press Photo Award for this image.

Indian journalist Max Martin (editor of recently interviewed Arko Datta for a chapter in Communicating Disasters: An Asia Pacific Resource Book (co-edited by myself and Frederick Noronha, and just released). The chapter is titled ‘Stop All the Clocks! Beyond Text: Looking at the Pics’, which argues that disaster photography needs to break away from the constraints of time and space.

Excerpts from that interview:

On frames
I actually do not plan a frame. I am merely a messenger and do not try to bring in subjectivity or my priorities (in my photographs). I have to be very objective when I am covering any event. I leave the viewers to interpret the pictures according to their perspective. However, of course there are certain parameters I like to follow.

I do not like showing corpses or any (image of) morbidity unnecessarily. In natural disasters it is mostly unnecessary; however, in a war, one may need to show the victims as that may be the strongest way of making people aware of the fallout of wars.

In a natural disaster, the story is generally about the survivors — their struggle to cope with the loss of their near and dear ones, their struggle to get back to normalcy. It’s the story of their grit and determination to survive and live.

On emotions
The first viewer of my pictures is myself. When I am touched by a situation, I plan to capture it in my camera and show it to others too. So, definitely, as any other human being, I react to every situation too. However, while on work one has to control and restrain one’s emotions, as no productive work can emerge during an emotional state of mind.

Arko Datta

While covering an event, and covering several events over the years, these emotions keep getting suppressed and bottled up. One needs to know how to tackle this in the long run, or it can deeply effect one’s mind. And everyone has his or her own way of tackling it. I do so by talking to my family and very close friends about my experiences.

On interfacing with humanitarian workers
I feel, on the field, humanitarian workers have their own work to do and the press has its own. The humanitarian workers should not get concerned about the press, as definitely the victims will be their top priority. The press can surely manage on its own. In fact, the press should not come in the way of relief and rescue work.

Here’s his profile from World Press Photo:

Arko Datta started his professional photojournalistic career in an Indian dailies in Madras and Calcutta. He then worked at AFP, and joined Reuters in 2001. His awards include national photo competition prizes from the Indian government, a prize in the Canon International photo competition, a Publish Asia award in Malaysia, Best Photojournalist of the Year award from Asian Photography magazine in India, the Picture of the Year award in Bombay and awards in the General News and Daily Life categories of the Indian Express Photo Competition. His publications include “Lost Childhood”, a book on child labor sponsored by the International Labor Organization, and his pictures are featured in a coffee table book of the most memorable pictures of India in the last 100 years and in the Reuters picture book “On the Road”.

Download the full book chapter by Max Martin, titled: Stop All the Clocks! Beyond Text: Looking at the Pics

Read or download the full book’s contents at TVEAP website

Sri Lanka: What killer waves united, killer humans divided again…

Today is the third anniversary of the Indian Ocean tsunami, which left a trail of destruction in many countries in South and Southeast Asia.

Today we remember those who perished and salute those who survived and endured enormous hardships.

We thank everyone everywhere who donated to help, and curse those who plundered or squandered the outcome of that generosity.

As I wrote in my only published verse, When the Waves Came, written on 28 December 2004 – when the disaster’s full impact was dawning on the world:

When the waves came
Roaring and moving mightily,
Unleashing the power of
A million bombs exploding at once,
They didn’t care
And just didn’t discern
Who or what was in their way.

My basic premise was that the killer waves had been a brutal ‘equaliser’ of all men and women. It no longer mattered on which side of law, morality, economics or social class they stood. This was particularly apt for Sri Lanka, a land divided for a quarter of a century by an armed separatist struggle that has hardened fundamentalist positions at both Sinhalese and Tamil ends of our ethnic spectrum. Towards the end of the verse, I noted:

As we in the aftermath tiptoe
Through endless depressing scenes
Of death and utter devastation
Can we tell the difference
Between Sinhala and Tamil,
Or Muslim and Burgher,
Or soldier and rebel
Or policeman and prisoner
Or rich and poor?

For a few days after the tsunami, there was a flicker of hope that the lashing from the seas might finally convince everyone of the complete futility of war. Political cartoonists in Sri Lankan newspapers were among the first to make this point. One cartoon, appearing two days after the disaster, showed a government soldier and Tiger rebel swimming together in the currents, struggling to save their lives. (Indeed, there were some reports of them helping each other in the hour of need.)

The cartoonists and other media commentators asked a common question: what happened to the land, and the dividing border that both sides had fought so hard and long for?

Alas, what Nature proposed we humans (Sri Lankans) disposed. While the tsunami helped usher in a negotiated settlement to the long-drawn armed struggle in Aceh, Indonesia, it only created a temporary lull in the Sri Lankan conflict. As soon as both sides recovered from Nature’s blow, they were back at each others’ throats again. (This contrast has been studied by various groups – see, for example, the summary of a Worldwatch Institute study Beyond Disasters: Creating Opportunities for Peace).

Looking back three years later, all I can say is that the land killer waves temporarily and forcibly united, killer human beings have managed to divide again for petty political, communal and personal gains.


This boy, Thillainayagam Theeban, epitomizes that bigger tragedy. He survived the tsunami — but not the escalation of Sri Lanka’s ethnically driven civil war, which consumed his life in March 2007.

Theeban was one of eight surviving children – from India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Thailand – whose remaining families we tracked and filmed for a year in Children of Tsunami media project, a citizens’ media response to the Indian Ocean Tsunami.

Theeban was murdered by unidentified gunmen who stormed into his ‘temporary’ tsunami shelter on 3 March 2007. The death was linked to political violence that has engulfed Sri Lanka since 2006.


When the shocking news reached us three days later, our Sri Lankan camera team at Video Image and we at TVE Asia Pacific just couldn’t believe it. We were all in tears, and some of us were also angry. Theeban, who survived the killer waves 26 months earlier (but lost his mom and kid brother in the disaster) suffered many indignities in displacement. And now, he is gone.

We still don’t know who killed Theeban. He was abducted by an armed group sometime in 2006, from whom he escaped in early 2007. It is believed that Theeban was killed as a punishment for running away — and as a warning to all others.

He was 16 years at the time of his death. It is unlikely that his killers would ever face justice.

As I wrote in my personal tribute to Theeban in March 2007, published by UCLA’s Asia Media and MediaHelpingMedia, UK: “The disaster’s Sri Lankan death toll (close to 40,000 dead or missing) shocked the world when it happened within a few hours or days. Yet, at least twice as many people -– most of them unarmed and uninvolved civilians — have been killed in over a quarter century of fighting. That doesn’t always grab headlines.

“Thillainayagam Theeban has become another statistic in a ‘low-intensity conflict’ (as some researchers call it). And while this war lasts, it will continue to consume thousands of other young lives — a grim roll call of Sri Lanka’s Lost Generation.”

The third anniversary of the tsunami is a reminder – if any were needed – that man’s inhumanity to man is often worse than Nature’s fury.

March 2007 blog post: Remembering Theeban

April 2007 blog post: More memories of Theeban

Children of Tsunami: Documenting Asia’s Longest Year

Thillainayagam Theeban (1990 – 2007)