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Practical tips for journalists and editors

In one sense, disasters represent the very definition of news – they are significant, unusual, immediate, and of great human interest. Any newspaper or broadcast news bulletin is replete with items about risks and disasters, big or small.

Apart from news as it is happening, disasters and risks present an opportunity for many other forms of journalism, including news analysis, investigative reporting, features, and current affairs programmes or documentaries.

Differentiate your content

There is a lot of news coverage when disasters happen, but a lot of this output can be quite similar in content and approach because different media outlets report the same central facts and use a lot of the same sources of information. You can distinguish yourself as a journalist by coming up with story ideas that are different from what everyone else is doing – and using a DRR perspective can give you a wealth of ideas for this.

You can differentiate yourself from others if you consciously set the agenda when you can, instead of following the agenda set by others. And the way to do this is to look for fresh stories and fresh angles that are about issues relevant to your audiences. This chapter outlines approaches and angles that can be used to produce stories that are both interesting and meaningful.

Audiences

To begin with, it is always good to think about the information needs and interest of your audience. This of course depends on the profile and reach of your media outlet. Audiences are important to journalists, but they can recede into the background in the daily routines of reporting.

Interacting with your audience and keeping track of what they are talking about or worried about at any time is a good place to begin. Different audiences have different needs and, during a fast-moving event like a disaster, this can change from day to day and often from morning to evening, depending on developments and what information they have received from other sources meanwhile.

Local audiences need verified and accurate information about the disaster itself, its impact, and rescue and relief efforts. They may need detailed information about risks, developments, counter measures, restrictions, where and when help is available, and local issues, people and places. They also need factual and scientific information that will serve as an antidote to panic.

National audiences, on the other hand, will not be interested in the same level of detail as audiences in the local area immediately affected by a disaster. International organisations that are planning to participate in the response may be geographically distant but will want to know what others are doing, the exact nature of needs and where to focus their efforts.

Planning for effective coverage

The journalism that contributes to DRR and building resilience to disasters begins long before a disaster strikes. Newsroom budgets across the world are shrinking, but many of these measures do not require the allocation of huge resources. What they do require is advance planning.

For editors and newsroom managers

  • Make your newsroom disaster ready. Understand your risk. Have a plan for what to do if your newsroom or reporters are affected by a disaster
  • Have an internal policy about who covers disasters
  • Create a set of guidelines for covering disasters, including ethical issues
  • Assign one reporter to cover DRR; the same reporter can also cover climate change
  • Think about the advantages your reporters have over non-local reporters, and how you could capitalise on this when a disaster occurs
  • Allow time to investigate the causes of a disaster
  • Recognise that DRR issues and processes yield good stories that are both interesting and important long before a disaster is imminent
  • Invest in DRR knowledge by sending reporters to DRR media training or on disaster field trips
  • Understand the role you can play in policy change
  • Organize private meetings at the higher level with national disaster managers
  • Organize targeted coverage on the needs of especially vulnerable people to raise awareness, create accountability among the authorities and to educate and inform the public

For reporters

  • Develop contacts with experts and institutions before disasters happen; know who they are, their exact specialisation and have regular contact with them
  • Include a wide variety of officials in your outreach, including the government’s Sendai Framework focal point, disaster management authorities, emergency services, local authorities including those responsible for civil protection and civil defence, national and local meteorological departments, relevant ministers and ministries
  • Create a contact list of experts in urban planning, risk management, early warning systems, climate change, gender, environmental and development issues to enrich the disaster story
  • Maintain updated lists of experts for every type of hazard in your country or local region; don’t restrict yourself to natural hazards and make sure you include environmental, biological and technological hazards such as industrial accidents
  • Try and develop contact with multiple experts in the same field instead of relying on one source
  • Have informal and regular meetings with the academic and scientific community who have a lot of useful material about risk assessment and mitigation measures this will help you be accurate and deliver sound scientific information when disasters strike
  • Participate in disaster management meetings to understand how they function
  • Familiarise yourself with the various strands of activities the authorities undertake when a disaster strikes – what are they and who is responsible
  • Ask to visit the local disaster management authority’s command centre or control room
  • Become familiar with the most disaster-prone zones and vulnerable areas
  • Keep a track record of past disasters and lessons learned
  • Keep updated statistics on previous disasters in your region
  • Keep track of the anniversaries of previous significant disasters – they provide a great opportunity to establish contact with sources and publish meaningful stories
  • Get familiar with the main prevention and mitigation measures taken by your authorities so that you are ready when disasters strike
  • Know the factors that can make a disaster worse, discuss these with experts
  • Invest in your own DRR knowledge so that you can dig out stories later on – when a disaster strikes it is too late to review scientific information and technical documents
  • Listen to communities and what they have to say

Covering disasters – a checklist

A large range of journalistic questions can usefully be asked while covering a disaster. Most of them are extensions of the well-known ‘5Ws and 1H’ – Who, What, When, Where, Why and How. The first four yield factual information, but the last two, why and how, generally yield the richest answers. You will also find the Why and How questions very productive when it comes to DRR-related stories, and there are other important questions that will occur to you, such as ‘What does it mean’?

General questions

  • Where did it occur and when? What are the specifics of the disaster context?
  • Why did it happen? What was predictable?
  • What are the main underlying factors behind the tragedy (poverty, climate change, environmental degradation, urban growth, lack of governance)? Could it have been averted?
  • Was there any DRR policy in place? Was an early warning system in place? Did it function?
  • How was the response?
  • Did people react to it? Quote different sources.

Questions about structural elements

  • How many houses were destroyed?
  • How many hospitals and schools were destroyed? Was there any land-use planning in place?
  • Was there any land-use planning policy integrating a multi-hazard approach?
  • Were houses and schools protected against hazards?
  • How were the houses built? Were any building codes in place? Was resilient building material used?

Questions about non-structural elements

  • How was the environment affected? Was deforestation an issue?
  • Were there any natural buffers?
  • What other non-structural measures were in place?

Questions about preparedness measures

  • Was there a contingency plan in place?
  • How were poor people, women and children affected? What was the impact on different economic groups? Who was most impacted?
  • Were there any shelters in place?

Economic questions

  • What was the economic impact?
  • What percentage of the economic losses were insured?
  • How much should be invested in DRR?

Recovery process questions

  • Can it be built back better or should there be a change of location?
  • Is DRR integrated in the recovery process?
  • What is needed to better protect the most vulnerable populations?
  • What is the DRR budget in the reconstruction budget?

Responsibility questions

  • Who was in charge at different levels?
  • Who should have been in charge?

Don’t forget to debrief and learn

When your assignment is over, it is important to find time to sit down with your editor, colleagues, and senior journalists to discuss what went well and what did not go quite so well. Examine individual performance as well as the performance of your newsroom systems – this is your opportunity to reflect upon how the task can be undertaken better the next time around. Even a short review session of this kind can show remarkable results in your next round of disaster coverage.

Editor's checklist

  • An easily accessible plan
  • Maps of areas in danger
  • Important addresses / contacts for vital people
  • Staff list / contacts for easy notification
  • Holiday details of staff for recall if necessary
  • A "Who does what" list
  • A shift pattern if necessary
  • Expert contact list
  • Access to equipment / transport
  • Have hard copies of instructions/ guidelines - accessible to all
  • First Aid provisions
  • Phones and back-ups
  • Ident cards for crews
  • Data sources
  • Historic/Archive materials
  • Include all staff

At the scene – checklists

For reporters

  • Make sure you can get there (adequate transport)... and get back!
  • Take notes as soon as you get to the scene - 1st impressions count.
  • Stop and think!
  • Make contact with eyewitnesses/keep their contact details
  • Stay in contact with base - inform them of developments.
  • Note the important images/colour of the scene.
  • Collect details from all reliable sources.
  • Tell what is known.... and what is not known.
  • Be clear, accurate and compassionate in your report.
  • Stay calm! Your tone must avoid any signs of panic.
  • Help the audience understand the situation
  • Be aware of your surroundings....
  • Stay safe!
  • Think of the angles you can offer for multiple stories.
  • Check and double check the facts.
  • Don't exaggerate or sensationalise!
  • Plan for follow-up visits/ stories.
  • Be aware of any Anniversary events/Location History
  • Don't suggest blame!
  • After the event - have a debrief with the editor/ producer/ colleagues.

Editor's checklist

  • An easily accessible plan
  • Maps of areas in danger
  • Important addresses / contacts for vital people
  • Staff list / contacts for easy notification
  • Holiday details of staff for recall if necessary
  • A "Who does what" list
  • A shift pattern if necessary
  • Expert contact list
  • Access to equipment / transport
  • Have hard copies of instructions/ guidelines - accessible to all
  • First Aid provisions
  • Phones and back-ups
  • Ident cards for crews
  • Data sources
  • Historic/Archive materials
  • Include all staff

Post-disaster stories, DRR and resilience

Issues related to DRR and resilience provide a host of opportunities to produce stories that are meaningful, relevant to your audience and can lead to systemic improvements. They provide a space not only for raising issues, but for consideration of various interconnected and long-term aspects that can improve the lives of people in a manner that contributes to community resilience and sustainable development.

DRR is the ideal ‘second-day story’

The ideal time to cover resilience and risk is of course in the days immediately after a disaster, while the impact of the disruption is still being felt. DRR stories make ideal ‘second-day stories’ – stories that are deeper, richer, more analytical or investigative, and which examine causes, issues and implications raised by the disaster event. They are not hard to find with a bit of thought – just see the wealth of DRR- and resilience-related coverage that emerged around the COVID-19 pandemic. There is no shortage of fresh story ideas when journalists put their minds to it.

Questions you can ask

There is a huge range of questions you can ask and approaches you can take. Some of them are listed below.

  • Question the lack of early warning
  • Question the lack of urban planning
  • Question the lack of building resilience
  • Question the lack of education and preparedness
  • Question the lack of a clear national strategy for disaster risk reduction aligned with the priorities for action in the Sendai Framework
  • Question the resources available to the national disaster management agency
  • Question the level of greenhouse gas emissions and efforts to de-carbonize the economy
  • Question if sufficient measures are being taken to adapt to climate change/ climate emergency
  • Question if the private sector is taking a risk-informed approach to new investments
  • Question the performance of people responsible for disaster management
  • Question the lack of investment, financial resources and political will in DRR
  • Question DRR measures in place: how well did they work?
  • Question the recovery and reconstruction phases and publish editorials that can trigger a debate
  • Think about social vulnerability and the gender issue: why do more women than men die in disasters?
  • Investigate the economic, social, cultural impacts of the disaster.
  • Examine other long-term effects
  • Draw out the lessons to be learned, using expert opinion
  • Analyse in depth the causes of the disaster: Why did it happen? Could it have been averted?
  • Recall the economic and human cost of past recoveries, the absence of lessons learned
  • Look at similar threats or previous disasters in other countries to inform about possible solutions
  • Develop stories where similar disasters may happen or are bound to happen given similar vulnerabilities and hazard trends.
  • Keep post-disaster issues in the news (necessary investments, measures that need to be taken, corruption, lack of political priorities). Can it happen again? What needs to be improved?
  • Continue informing and investigating to change attitudes and policies.
  • Be alert for new disaster hazards; visit exposed sites.
  • Keep the topic alive by including DRR issues in cultural and social events covered by media (e.g. children’s programmes, current affairs programmes, talk shows, soap operas, etc.).

Long-term DRR stories

You can continue your DRR coverage after the immediate impact of the disaster has receded. During a disaster and its immediate aftermath, you will usually be run off your feet trying to keep up with developments and the news cycle. But it would have served as a valuable opportunity to build contacts with disaster management experts and those in other related fields. Continue to cultivate those sources even when the intense phase of coverage is over and they will yield a rich crop of stories. Examining resilience issues round the year is important to develop your contacts and skills, and also to establish your credibility with experts and audiences alike.

Finding the right news peg

Many DRR stories will pass the test of newsworthiness even when there is no disaster in sight, depending on how well you can ‘hang’ your story on a ‘news peg’.

Anniversaries of disasters provide an ideal platform for raising DRR issues. DRR stories do not come to you, you must go after them, so these are ideal occasions to make a start and convince your editor that you have a good story to tell.

Some risks and hazards are not marked by single disasters or events. Global warming and climate change are in this category. In such cases, the release of reports and findings, international conferences and events, and connected events such as severe storms in other parts of the world can provide a convenient ‘news peg’ for stories in your area. Media outlets sometimes launch campaigns around such issues, as the British newspaper The Guardian did for climate change which they now habitually refer to as the Climate Emergency.

  • Investigate the potential threats and risks that might endanger the lives of populations in your village or country (informal settlements, poor construction in disaster-prone zone and destruction of natural environmental buffers)
  • Investigate the degree of DRR measures undertaken (prevention, mitigation, preparedness, recovery) and how they reduce risk
  • Do not wait for a disaster to happen before writing about potential threats. Be proactive
  • Focus on how communities prepare for disasters e.g. before the rainy season
  • Cover drills, preparedness exercises, education measures and activities to inform people of their risk and vulnerabilities and educate them about what they can do
  • Conduct interviews with experts and disaster management authorities and initiate a possible debate on a DRR issue
  • Develop regular stories on people’s vulnerabilities to disasters, their social, environmental and economic vulnerabilities
  • Report on how the public and governments interact
  • Link any story on the environment, poverty, climate change or urban risk to a disaster risk reduction issue; in other words, report on disasters in the making where vulnerabilities are developing in hazard-prone zones
  • Take any international disaster opportunity to highlight a local or national potential threat
  • Keep the memory of past disasters alive: people tend to forget and react only when disasters happen
  • Commemorate the International Day for Disaster Reduction, which is on 13 October and World Tsunami Awareness Day on November 5

Solutions Journalism

Though coverage of climate change and global warming is increasing, solutions are infrequently mentioned. The Solutions Journalism Network describes solution journalism as rigorous, evidence-based reporting on responses to social problems, which provides insights that can help others. It suggests that journalists don’t just have to be “watchdogs” exposing wrongdoing and demanding accountability, they can also be “guide dogs” who focus on reporting on positive action.

Solutions stories offer fresh angles for journalists. Audiences say they prefer this shift away from ‘negativity’ and of course such stories disseminate valuable information on responses, encouraging wider adoption and further innovation.

The Solutions Journalism Network suggests asking these key questions for solutions stories:

  • Who’s doing it better?
  • How does the response work?
  • What parts of the problem aren’t addressed by the response?
  • Where did this idea come from?
  • Is it being replicated elsewhere? With what effect?
  • What does the research say?
  • What do the critics say?
  • What metrics matter when it comes to measuring success?
  • In what ways is that response working, in what ways is it not working, and how do we know?
  • What are the barriers to replication?

It also suggests ways in which to avoid slipping away from impartial reporting and into advocacy for particular solutions:

  • Don’t overclaim
  • Show what the character does, not what s/he aims to do
  • Let readers draw their own conclusions
  • Reveal characters’ challenges
  • Do not shy away from dark moments
  • Look for unlikely characters
  • Take out the words “inspiring,” “solution,” “wonderful,” “super,” “unique,” “genius”

Resource

The website of the Solutions Journalism Network offers useful information and links to training programmes.

solutionsjournalism.org