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.’

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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 — ipsnews.net — 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

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