Breaking News on a Restless Planet: Covering Disasters in a Networked Society

Communicating Disasters: ZiF Conference in Bielefeld
How do we cope with a warming planet while living in an increasingly WikiLeakable world? Exactly one year ago, I explored this in my talk given at the University of Colombo during the LEAF Conference.

As I reflected then: “We live in a crisis-ridden world where we have to cope with multiple emergencies unfolding at the same time, impacting us on different fronts. This illustration captures three of them: crisis in biodiversity, man-made climate change, and the new reality of living in a rapidly WikiLeakable world — what I called the Global Glass House.”

I returned to this theme and explored it further this week when giving a keynote address at the Bielefeld University in Germany. I was participating in their international and inter-disciplinary conference on “Dealing with the Disaster of Others”, 26-28 January 2012. The conference was the culmination of a year-long research project on this theme carried out at the University’s Centre for Interdisciplinary Research (ZiF).

I also built on ideas initially discussed in my 2007 book, Communicating Disasters, which was part of the reference material used during th ZiF research project.

Nalaka Gunawardene speaks at ZiF Conference on Communicating Disasters, Bielefeld, Germany: 27 Jan 2012

Here’s the Summary (Abstract) of my talk. PowerPoint slides below.

Breaking News on a Restless Planet: Covering Disasters in a Networked Society

by Nalaka Gunawardene
Science Writer, Blogger & Columnist; Director – TVE Asia Pacific (TVEAP)

Communicating disasters — before, during and after they happen — is fraught with many challenges. The increased volume and flow of information, enabled by the proliferation of information and communication technologies (ICTs), fills some gaps — but not all. Other critical elements such as institution building, training and awareness raising are needed at all levels to create societies that are better informed and prepared.

The news media, driven by their quest for what is new, true and interesting, can be useful allies for disaster managers. But the nexus between these two groups has always been contentious, and the acceleration of the news cycle has made it more so. Having to sustain 24/7 coverage for their fragmented and distracted audiences places enormous pressures on news media to break news first — and reflect later. In this scenario, how can empathetic, ethical and balanced reporting happen?

As disasters increase in frequency and intensity partly due to climate change, mainstream media practitioners across Asia struggle to keep up. Disasters are more drawn out (e.g. Pakistan floods, 2010 & Thailand floods, 2011), geographically scattered (Indian Ocean tsunami, 2004) and economically devastating (Tohoku/Fukushima, 2011) than before. This stretches the capacities and resources of many news organisations. Saturation coverage of unfolding disasters can also cause ‘compassion fatigue’ and apathy in audiences.

In today’s networked society, news media are no longer the sole gatherers or distributors of news. Without the trappings and inertia of the institutionalised media, citizen journalists are quick to adopt ICT tools and platforms. What does this mean for communicating disasters that requires care and sensitivity? In which ways can we find synergy between mainstream and new/social media to better serve the public interest on a warming planet? What value-additions can the mainstream media still offer to the coverage of disasters near and far?

We examine these and other larger questions with reference to recent disasters in Asia.

Here’s the PPT: