In the wake of tsunami coverage, challenges and lessons for the press

The tsunami demonstrated that modern journalists do more than just bring unfolding stories to the world — but what happens when the press is ill-prepared to, or is prevented from, meeting its responsibilities?

By Roby Alampay

Bangkok — One would be excused for not knowing which type of natural disaster has killed the most number of people in the last two decades of the last century. One would be excused, that is, unless one was tasked precisely to know such things.

It is the media that’s always first on the scene of a calamity — reporting, assessing, analyzing, calling for government’s quick response, appealing for the public’s understanding and generosity. But about 70 senior journalists gathered from around Asia for a conference in Thailand surmised (wrongly) that earthquakes, or perhaps floods, are the most fatal among all of nature’s tantrums. The Asian editors, producers, reporters and news executives came to Phuket last April 28 and 29 precisely to discuss how they can better cover disasters — and soon enough they were off to a telling start.

For the record, this is the reality: More than tremors, more than floods, more than hurricanes, typhoons, and erupting volcanoes, it is plainly and simply droughts that claim the most lives. The Asian Disaster Preparedness Centre (ADPC) says that from 1982 to 2001, floods affected the most people, and earthquakes caused the heaviest damage to property, but it is droughts that have consistently been the grimmest reapers, killing more people in two decades (more than 277,000) than floods and earthquakes combined. Even now, as the world shakes off its daze from the tsunami, a quick survey — from Zimbabwe to the States, China, and yes, South and Southeast Asia — will tell you that enduring dry spells have indeed returned to the top of nations’ and entire continents’ agendas.

For APDC Director Suvit Yodmani, however, this begs the question: why does the topic of drought hardly go to the world’s headlines as well? He suspects that basic misperceptions are part of the problem, but more fundamentally, he makes the point that authorities, relief agencies, development workers, and the media are evidently failing to give the public — and themselves — the right information.

That in itself is a formula for disaster. From a disaster manager’s perspective — where information spells education, and education invites action which hopefully redounds to preparedness — Yodmani says any gap in knowledge or leap in logic can only lead to a reliving of tragedies.

The recent conference in Asia, “Media and the Coverage of Disasters,” started off with that concern precisely. The region’s journalists were asked: what responsibilities does media take on whenever disasters occur and how does it improve on every role it plays?

The days following the tsunami demonstrated that the modern journalist does not only bring an unfolding story to the world. He or she also helps to heal communities, rebuild lives, keep families intact, raise funds. The media also keeps an eye on government and relief agencies, helping to ensure that aid gets to the people who need it, and that those who deliver the goods remain accountable to the world.

Such responsibility! But what happens when the press is not prepared to play so many roles? The question should be particularly troubling for Asians; according to the World Bank, in recent years 52 percent of populations affected by natural disasters lived in Asia. Eighty-seven percent of all casualties also came from this, the most populous continent on Earth. Even more ominous, by virtue of geology, burgeoning populations, poverty-driven settlements and even poor governance, Asians will continue to have a higher probability of being a casualty in a future disaster than other citizens of the world.

The important news to first communicate is that certain impacts and elements of disasters are mitigable, manageable, and even preventable, if information can flow as powerfully as the tragedies — natural and man-made — that media seeks to cover. From this standpoint, the media might have a clearer idea of what needs to be done.

From the past and for the future, one thing that journalists can realize is that they needn’t wait for disasters to strike before they actually cover their implications. The Phuket conference was capped by a presentation from Dr. Smith Tharmasaroja, proponent and lead designer of Thailand’s new tsunami early warning system — the same scientist who had been advocating for just such a system since the 1990’s.  Nobody listened to his pleas until it was too late, and the Phuket conference thus challenged its participants to develop a “disaster beat” based on already existing data, research and a global community of scientists still crying out for attention.

It is not just media circumspection that is needed, of course. Beyond what journalists can do, there is also the matter of what authorities are willing and able to let on. There is also, in other words, the question of how much a responsible press will be allowed to do its job.

During the conference, journalists from Aceh spoke of the need to guard against corruption in the relief process. Their colleagues from the Philippines spoke about the same issue, drawing from their experience in tracking billions of pesos in relief funds released after the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in 1990. >From the democracies of Thailand, Indonesia, India, and the Philippines, to the strife-torn regions of Sri Lanka and Indonesia, to the closed society that is Burma (where the ruling junta didn’t immediately allow independent verification of the tsunami’s impact on its people), there was collective recognition among the continent’s journalists of the importance of government transparency in the face of chaos — the inescapable conclusion being that more and better access to information lends itself to better problem-solving capabilities not just of government, but of all sectors and entities involved in rescue, relief, rehabilitation and reconstruction.

Democracy and access to information, in other words, are elements that compound or mitigate disasters and the ability of a society to heal itself. On the other hand, restricting media and a culture of free information stifles prevention, confuses relief and rehabilitation, and perpetrates a cycle that — contrary to popular and outdated belief — is not inevitable at all.

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The article first appeared May 17 on the Asia Media website of the UCLA Asia Institute (www.asiamedia.ucla.edu). The author is executive director of the Southeast Asian Press Alliance which, together with the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, organized a “Media and the Coverage of Disasters” Conference in Phuket, Thailand, on April 28 and 29. You can reach him at roby@seapabkk.org.