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.
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.
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.
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.
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’?
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.
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.
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.
There is a huge range of questions you can ask and approaches you can take. Some of them are listed below.
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.
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.
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:
It also suggests ways in which to avoid slipping away from impartial reporting and into advocacy for particular solutions:
The website of the Solutions Journalism Network offers useful information and links to training programmes.