Disaster reporting

Natural and industrial disasters are always covered by the media, but reporters could do far more than merely assume the role of observers. They should raise people’s awareness of imminent dangers, warn of risks and cover technologies that help to prevent catastrophes.

[ By Christina Kamlage and Dirk Asendorpf ]

A dozen colourful fishing boats are lying on the beach; nets are spread out to dry; a cow is dozing in the shade of a thatched roof. This setting is not as idyllic as it seems. “We haven’t been able to go out for three days,” says the village chief of Mayurkuppam. “The swell is too dangerous and there was a storm warning. They announced it on the radio and we also received a warning by mobile phone.”

For the fishermen in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu, another day will pass without income. Nonetheless, they are happy they have a reliable early warning system. In small groups, they are talking to journalists from Chennai, the state capital, explaining how modern information technology has made their work a little less dangerous. The visitors take pictures and fill their notepads – 21 journalists are taking part in a workshop on the media’s role in disaster risk management.

For more than five years, InWEnt has been invol­ving journalists in programmes designed to boost disaster risk ma­nagement in Africa and Asia. The focus is not on covering earthquakes, tropical storms, floods or industrial accidents, but rather on what the media should do way before and long after catastrophe strikes.
– How can journalists best inform the people of imminent dangers and possible preventive measures?
– How should they raise awareness for governmental and non-governmental prevention programmes – and critically assess their suitability at the same time?
– How do they ensure that important lessons from the past are not simply forgotten again?
In order to tackle these issues in a real-life setting, the workshop spends one mor­ning of its two-day programme in Mayurkuppam.

Multiple risks

This village is exposed to several disaster risks. It was flooded by the tsunami on Boxing Day 2004. Twelve people drowned; the wooden houses and many boats were destroyed. Five years on, all the families now have a roof over their heads again. The Indian government and aid agencies built stone and concrete houses, paved the paths and set up emergency shelters.

The new buildings, however, are located exactly where the old village was, less than 100 metres away from the surf. A cyclone would flood it once more, not to mention a tsunami. “Relocating was out of the question,” the village chief says, “we have to be close to our boats.” Unlike before, however, the village will now get early warnings over the airwaves.

Industrial accidents can cause cata­s­trophes too, as was evident in the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico this year. Internationally, the names of the towns of Chernobyl and Bhopal became synomyms of mass suffering after terrible accidents in the past. Of course, the media are relevant in such contexts too. They can point out risks, for instance, or inform people of emergency plans.

As elsewhere in the world, such co­verage matters in Tamil Nadu. Despite being required by law for quite some time, this Indian state does not even have an emergency management agency. This is what Naghma Firdaus tells the journalists’ workshop. The UN expert is familiar with the technical and administrative specifics of disaster risk management in India.

At a mock editorial conference after returning from the village, several journalists agree that, combined with a report from the fishing village, this information would make a great feature story. By publishing such articles, their newspapers would thus serve as watchdogs and part of an early warning system. This is precisely what Sashi Kumar, the head of the Chennai-based Asian College of Journa­lism (ACJ), had demanded in his brief welcoming speech. The ACJ prepared the workshop in cooperation with InWEnt’s International Institute for Journalism and Department of Environment, Energy and Water. The ACJ also invited several parti­cipants to the workshop.

“These ideas are great, but they hardly ever materialise,” warns Nitjanand Jayaram, a senior environmental jour­nalist. “Our media are good when it comes to events, but they shy from reporting slow and long-term developments.” This is especially true of rural issues. “Journalists are from higher castes and know little about the life of low-caste people.”

Getting out of the city

For precisely this reason, the ACJ’s Professor Nagaraj sends his students, who are often from well-to-do families, to report from a remote village for two weeks. “They need to experience first hand that poverty makes people particularly vulne­rable, and that disasters therefore hit the lowest strata of society particularly hard.” Nagaraj believes that journalists should be taught not only how to describe this vicious circle, but even to help to break it down in the long term through good reporting.

In cooperation with InWEnt, the ACJ is designing a training module and a manual, drawing on experience from media workshops in va­rious Indian regions. The workshop participants in Tamil Nadu had the opportunity to discuss an early version of the manual. It contains background information and practical tips. It also lists the phone numbers of important persons the journalists will need to contact in order to report before, during and after a disaster. There even will be a short version printed on waterproof paper that reporters can put in the trouser pocket in case of an emergency.

“Back in 2004, we stumbled into the disaster zone without any plan at all,” recalls Papri Sriman during the workshop. She co­vered the tsunami for the news agency Reuters. “There was no early warning at all. I first realised that something must have gone badly wrong when suddenly all mobile phones started ringing simu­l­taneously while I was standing in a queue at a ticket office.” Her colleague Sanjay Ghosh from All India Radio, the national broadcaster, says he still feels “the pain of having to report the suffering of the people personally affected by the tsunami”. At the time, journalists were not offered any counselling.

The younger participants in the workshop listen eagerly. In their evaluation they will later state that they rated the personal exchange among colleagues very much – topped only by the field trip to Mayurkuppam. Speaking on behalf of all the participants, Noorullah of the daily newspaper Tamil Sudar, expresses his regret: “In everyday life, we practically never leave the city.”

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