Has disaster reporting reached a turning point?

The extensive coverage of the South East Asia disaster, which
remained top of the news agenda many days after the Boxing Day tsunami,
and the emphasis on the need for aid, undoubtedly influenced the
public’s unprecedented response to the appeal.

But do aid organisations working in the affected countries think
coverage of this event is different from that of other disasters? And
are they optimistic that the sustained focus on the region is a sign of
a change in attitude among the media?

Or, in the words of Care
International’s Ron Fosker: “will we all turn away once the journalists
and cameras leave and return to wondering who will be the next to be
evicted from the Big Brother house?”

Ron Fosker, communications advisor, Care International

First of all it is worth asking why this has been such a huge story.
The scale is the first obvious answer. Brits were involved, which that
always ups the ante, and it was Christmas.

But, as ever, the media played a major part. This was a story with
dramatic pictures and, thanks to the home video, actual film of the
waves that caused the damage.

The question circulating in
communication offices of charities dealing with overseas development is
will they now receive a more sympathetic ear when they try to interest
a journalist in their latest water and sanitation project in Nepal, or
their AIDS prevention campaign in Namibia?

Well, up to a point, Lord Cooper (and those who have read Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop will know that means “no”?).

Sadly
we have been here before. People are touched in many ways by a
disaster, but it takes a special kind of person to be moved by the
plight of people dying of preventable diseases, malnutrition or sheer
neglect in the world’s poorest countries.

And it takes a special kind of journalist to make a story out of it.

In
Africa over 2.3 million die from preventable diseases every year. But
it does not make the headlines, does not even make a downpage slot on
page 17.

Michael Buerk and Bob Geldof raised the profile of aid
20 years ago and Geldof and Bono have done their best to keep it in the
public eye since. But it still remains the poor relation.

I would love Press Gazette ’s readers to prove me wrong.

Martin Thomas, public policy communications manager, World Vision

What has been impressive about the disaster coverage is the speed with which the story has developed.

Normally there are three different phases. The first is coverage of
the actual disaster, then coverage of the response to the disaster and
the aid effort. The third is the analysis.

In this instance it all happened in the space of a week.

There has been some excellent analysis, which has put a spotlight on how the international community has responded.

Governments that were slow to respond or responded in an inadequate way were exposed to criticism.

In many cases this led to a stronger response.

But
one of the biggest challenges that now confronts the media is how it is
going sustain its coverage as the relief effort stretches into weeks,
months and even years.

The next phase of the recovery effort will
have to tackle the longer term issues of rebuilding infrastructure,
rehousing the homeless and breathing life back into industries and
economies that have been wrecked by this disaster.

It will be a marathon, not a sprint.

I
think it’s going to be difficult for journalists to sustain the
interest of their editors in the long term but these countries need the
support of the international community and I hope that the media plays
its role, keeping the public spotlight on what unfolds.

The other
great challenge for the media is to not let this disaster overshadow
the suffering of the poor and vulnerable in other parts of the globe.

The
challenge will be for the media to build on the issues that have been
raised through the coverage of the Asian tsunami and carry that through
to an in-depth analysis of international efforts to breakdown the
structures that are keeping millions of people in poverty.

Tricia O’Rourke, press officer, Disaster Emergency Committee

We are on target for raising £100 million in aid, which is the biggest amount raised in a Disaster Emergency Committee appeal.

The level of media attention has undoubtedly been a factor.

The
fact that every day whenever people turned on the news or picked up a
newspaper the crisis was staring out at them over such a long period
has undoubtedly had an impact on the appeal.

This has been a
disaster that made front page and headline news for many days, whereas
with other disasters the media has moved on much more quickly.

Once the story moves on we find that donations can slip away.

Ben Hewitt, head of media, Save the Children

On Boxing Day a massive earthquake struck, claiming the lives of
thousands of people and triggering a massive international relief
effort to aid the survivors and rebuild shattered infrastructure.

That was Boxing Day 2003 and the earthquake, in Bam, Iran, claimed 42,000 lives.

It
was a major emergency, which was covered widely in the media and
prompted a generous reaction from the public, with millions of pounds
being donated.

But it was minor compared to the reaction to the
current disaster. There are a number of events and circumstances which
have come together to create the unprecedented media and public
reaction to the current crisis in South Asia.

Firstly, the
earthquake in Bam affected one town in one country. A country which few
westerners have visited and very few were visiting at the time the
quake struck. In Iran buildings collapsed and people died immediately,
the aid effort kicked into gear and rebuilding began. This was
interrupted by the occasional survivor being pulled from the wreckage
after surviving for four days, a week, or even 13 days in one case.

In
South Asia the story has evolved gradually and unpredictably. It has
grabbed and sustained people’s attention because nobody knows what is
going to happen next.

Also, like the best Shakespearean
tragedies, there have been sub-plots to the main story. The bidding war
between governments displaying their generosity, the debate on the
location of Tony Blair, that amazing photo and the revelation that the
Swedish family pictured in it had survived.

The one thing the
earthquake in Bam and the tsunami in Asia have in common is that they
occurred during the Christmas and new year holiday.

However, the
huge media coverage and outpouring of public sympathy has happened
before. Twenty years ago the amazing response to a humanitarian crisis
in Ethiopia rocked the world — culminating in Live Aid. Governments
were shamed into action.

But when the immediate crisis was forgotten, the world moved on to focus on other things.

This must not be allowed to happen this time round. 2005 is a unique opportunity to make child poverty history across the world.

If media attention is sustained and uses this as a catalyst for sustained attention on poverty then this really would be unique.

Mark Jones, editor, Reuters AlertNet — the humanitarian news portal run by Reuters Foundation

The slow-motion manner in which the sheer scale of this crisis was
unveiled was particularly crucial to the quality of the coverage. This
factor created the time and energy to do something unparalleled in
natural disaster reporting.

Sheer resources allowed the press to escape a tendency towards superficial coverage of such crises.

Right
from the start British media played a key role in highlighting the
small sums initially committed by western governments — typical for
sudden onset emergencies but rarely questioned.

The media
reporting of the contrast between apparent official stinginess and an
unprecedented wave of public donations in part explains the drastic
increases in pledges by official donors.

All of which meant that,
this time, journalists have had the time to think harder about what
they write and to go beyond the clichés of humanitarian crisis
reporting. Aid workers tell me it’s the best reporting of an emergency
they’ve ever seen.

The traditional traps into which journalists
summoned to cover unfamiliar situations in faraway countries have been,
for the most part, avoided.

An initial obsession with the death
toll yielded reasonably quickly to an assessment of how many people had
been displaced and, in the second week of the crisis, to the threat to
families’ livelihoods.

There’s been much discussion on the
challenge of reconstruction, a subject that rarely gets coverage before
interest in most natural disasters has been lost.

Journalists
have also largely sidestepped the tendency to focus on home-country
nationals caught up in a foreign crisis rather than on the local
population.

Even the traditional phase in which aid organisations
come under fire for not delivering faster has been treated with more
balance. For every righteously indignant correspondent who got to a
trouble spot before the food parcels, there was another’s account of
the logistical nightmares involved in aid flows.

The secondary
wave of public donations added momentum to the coverage, triggering an
unheralded questioning of how aid delivery really works and why it
takes so long to get to affected populations.

Particularly
notable was Andrew Gilligan’s honest account in the Evening Standard .
He described how shocked he was to realise that the majority of aid
doesn’t arrive via huge military cargo planes from western nations, as
he’d thought from previous coverage of crises, but is actually bought
from local suppliers using the charity’s credit card.

What was equally impressive was a critical approach to reporting what have previously seemed humanitarian crisis myths.

British
journalists questioned the need for rapid, undignified mass burials on
disease-prevention grounds. Several cited little-aired World Health
Organisation guidelines stressing that corpses pose minimal health
risks and that the bigger threat is to the psychological well-being of
relatives unable to identify their loved ones.

With the luxury of
time and resources, a sense of history in the making, and the oxygen of
sustained public interest in their lungs, journalists dug much deeper
than is traditional in humanitarian crisis reporting. The hope now is
that the more open, questioning approach will in future crises lead to
less of the clichéd reporting which creates friction between the aid
world and the media.

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