Time To Get Off The Disaster Reporting Merry-Go-Round

In addition to demanding responsible, accurate reporting during the disaster, we must also push journalists to report about the way forward and not, wittingly or not, use the same headlines and narratives for each disaster.
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Our society is drawn to disasters. The urgency and the dramatic pictures shake us to our core. Much of the media knows this and they devote hours of coverage to the devastation. It becomes cyclical, the public's fascination--perhaps a type of virtual disaster tourism--drives more coverage, and around we go. Yet, regardless of what disaster, be it the tsunami in Southeast Asia, the earthquake in Haiti, or at the moment the typhoon in the Philippines, the headlines are pretty much carbon copies of one another.

  • "Distress Grows in [Insert Country Here] Victims Who Can't Get Aid"

  • "[Insert Disaster Here] Aid Gridlock Paralyzes Epicenter of Damage"
  • "Grief and hunger dominate amid survival struggle"
  • "Cash is most effective donation after disaster [Insert Country Here]"
  • "US Marines land in [Insert Country Here]"
  • The media is just one entity that focuses on the legitimate difficulties of getting supplies to victims of such horrific disasters. The problem is that often it does so, not in a constructive manner, but rather in a scolding manner. Either supplies are not arriving fast enough or they have arrived, but distribution is too slow. Either other nations do not step in to help the country's whose capacity has been devastated or they are seen as overstepping. Either there is no coordination or the coordination system is too weak further slowing down the response.

    Having worked on the response to several natural disasters from Haiti to the triple disaster in Japan, I want to make some things clear: the response will never be fast enough; the damage will always be greater than we can bear; and the need for sustained engagement will always present a challenge. Unfortunately, that is why these events are indeed called natural disasters. While we need to accept these truths, it does not mean being complacent. We have seen swift responses to many disasters, but no matter how fast the food arrives or the airports reopens, such stories of progress are far outnumbered by criticism and portrayals of acquiescence.

    This is where the media re-enters. Adding unfortunate irony to many of the reports is the fact that the news media is often the first on the ground after a disaster. In Haiti, some arrived before aid shipments. In the Philippines broadcasters reached some of the most impacted villages while relief workers (and, yes, other journalists) were unable to because of subsequent threats. The media also tends to leave once the situation begins to stabilize, leaving viewers and readers with the impression of continued chaos. I am cognizant of the great investment being on the ground in the first place requires and understand it cannot be without an end date.

    The media will show us pictures of despair and cries for help. With each disaster these reports make it sound like the need for water, food and basic sanitation and health supplies are unique to the immediate crisis. Unfortunately, but also fortunately, they are not. Responders know how to pre-position supplies and have systems in place to respond quickly to natural disasters. While no two disasters are alike, nor should we compare them, we do learn them and can often better prepare for the sad fact that another one will no doubt come.

    Human pain and suffering cannot and should not be overlooked. Holding donors accountable for their pledges is critical, and donors must help in this regard. Promoting transparency in investments and the flow of supplies is vital; again something organizations themselves must do a better job of. But there is another critical role the media could play simply by continuing to follow the situation, look forward and keep the public informed of the reality and difficulties on the ground, often for years to come. What can we learn from what happened? How can we convey to people around the world that once the television cameras leave, the difficult work of reconstruction begins and requires the same levels of support as in the immediate aftermath? What happened to the people whose pictures we saw?

    Many journalists put their lives on the line to cover these tragic events. We should always note their bravery. However, bravery is not an end in itself. The first impulse cannot be to criticize the response especially in the immediate aftermath. That does not help the victims of the current disaster or those that are sadly still to come. Instead it provides an excuse for people to not engage and it highlights the worst fears of family members who lives an ocean away.

    In addition to demanding responsible, accurate reporting during the disaster, we must also push them to report about the way forward and not, wittingly or not, use the same headlines and narratives for each disaster. There's a reason these reports aren't done in front of a green screen in a studio. The content of the reporting should make that clear. "The suffering and stories of recovery and reconstruction do not stop when the cameras leave," is a common refrain after disasters. So let's make sure that when the cameras leave it is not for good. They come back. They report on the pace of progress, not only on the anniversary of the tragedy with a splashy headline or chyron, but throughout the year. The focus and attention the media brings to the situation on the ground is something the victims need for more than a few days or a week.

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