Disasters and the media
By Hajrah Mumtaz
THE country’s love/ hate relationship with the media continues. During the flood crisis, sections of the media have been praised for bringing out the scale and scope of the disaster.
In numerous cases, journalists showed considerable dedication in penetrating areas where transport and infrastructural facilities had simply been washed away, thus making access itself a difficult task.
Inevitably, though, the media has also come under fire for not showing enough humanity. On blogspots and in newspapers’ letters sections, which accommodate public opinion, it has been asked, for example, why journalists were requisitioning helicopters at a time when urgent appeals were being sent out for helicopters for flood relief work.
Such criticisms about the role of Pakistan’s media during times of crisis, whether natural or manmade, are not new. When the earthquake devastated parts of Kashmir and northern Pakistan in 2005, a horrified citizenry asked why some journalists continued to film footage instead of stretching a helping hand down to persons buried under rubble.
During the violence that accompanied Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry’s arrival in Karachi on May 12, 2007, a man lay in a bus with a bullet in his leg and a news cameraman filmed the entire scene but did nothing to help. Most recently, television footage of the Airblue crash has in many cases earned deserved approbation for insensitive visuals and reportage that added to the confusion and national grief.
News consumers tend to take these disparate examples as one cohesive block constituting evidence of our nascent electronic news media’s willingness to sacrifice professionalism at the altar of getting the story. In actual fact, however, such examples are indications of a complexity of issues, only some of which are related to an immature news industry – or even to the industry itself.
There also exist institutional issues in terms of the manner in which disasters are covered. It is important that news consumers learn to recognise these subtleties. Only then will they be able to develop an accurate picture.
Firstly, the decision of whether to help or merely record the story is one that is dictated by the personal conscience of the reporter, photographer or cameraman on the spot. Yet filming a dying man, as in the case of the May 12 example (whether or not one then brought him help), is in any case condemnable and constitutes poor ethics.
Footage of scattered personal effects and mutilated bodies, be it after an air crash or a bomb blast, is grossly insensitive. Journalists are not vehicles of voyeurism, after all; get the story, but in a responsible fashion. Unfortunately, however, given the cut-throat competition that is the hallmark of the modern media industry, news organisations vie with each other for the most dramatic footage, which often translates to the most explicit or the most disturbing. That mindset has to change.
However, this is entirely different from the criticism mentioned above in terms of the 2005 earthquake. Journalists were able to get to the scene faster than aid and relief teams precisely because all they had to gather in preparation was a camera or a notebook. Organising rescue and relief forays takes time, transporting the equipment and goods to areas rendered inaccessible by a shattered infrastructure even more so.
During that crisis, there were many occasions when a reporter or news crew managed to access a village that had so far not been reached by relief goods’ distributors. That was because in numerous cases, intrepid reporters clambered up to the site on their own, under their own steam.
That is very different to taking across bags of flour, tents and drinking water that were the immediate needs of the devastated communities. And, in making that effort and bringing back reports of the conditions at that particular site, the reporters did help the aid effort since they drew the attention of relief teams to the areas that had not so far been covered.
Then there are the more general issues of media perceptions and treatment of disasters and gaps in patterns of coverage. There is a tendency, common to the media in Pakistan, India and Bangladesh and no doubt to other countries as well, for media organisations to treat disasters as isolated events and thus focus coverage on emergency activities.
As a 2002 book, Disaster Communication – A Resource Kit for the Media puts it, “journalists react to events and file their write-ups after something has happened.” The casual observer would see nothing wrong in this, and no possibility for further reportage options. But as the authors explain, this means that the longer-term causes and consequences of disasters are often overlooked.
The floods in Pakistan are a case in point. There is massive reactive, event-based coverage of the crisis but few reports have been produced about contributing factors, such as unchecked human settlement on flood plains, the lack of canal de-silting, deforestation etc.
Indeed a comment by a deputy editor of India Today, quoted in the book, could be applied verbatim to Pakistan’s coverage of disasters: “Disaster reporting in India has traditionally followed a formula. First there are the gruesome horror stories, followed by accusations that the government wilfully connived in the disaster, followed by the stories of how official machinery is insensitive to the sufferings, followed by the alarmist fears of epidemics and, finally, the exposÃ© of the wholesale loot of relief material.”
With regard to the connivance of the government, consider the media focus on breaches allegedly made to protect some landholdings of people in or with connections to the government.
Certainly, these are all real issues and quite worthy of media coverage. However, sudden and slow-onset disasters are treated differently, with the latter – desertification, ecological degradation etc – often being seen by the mass media as non-issues. (In Pakistan, the coverage of the Attabad lake was a notable exception.) As a result, risk systems go continually under-reported and, curving in on itself, each disaster is then treated again as an isolated event.