Disasters and risks dominate the news when they happen or are imminent. However, the role of the media is not – and should not be – limited to reporting a disaster when it is underway.
Media coverage is a powerful tool that can focus attention, set the agenda for public discussion, influence political decisions and change public attitudes – and save lives.
The media shape how the public perceives the risks posed by natural hazards; these perceptions in turn influence the set of strategies for the mitigation of future vulnerabilities in the form of taxes, opportunity costs, lifestyle changes, etc.
Media serve as a vital channel of information between the authorities and emergency services on the one hand and their audiences on the other. They convey information in both directions.
Before a disaster, especially in the case of a natural hazard for which a warning is available, journalists convey warnings and other emergency information from the authorities to the people, thus reducing risk and saving lives. When a disaster is underway, or recovery is taking place, they report on the event by describing what has happened or what is happening, which serves to bring ground conditions to the attention of those organising the response. They also identify issues that may arise in recovery operations and highlight the needs of groups or individuals.
Sometimes journalists may reach disaster-hit areas even before the emergency services, and their role in relaying information about the situation on the ground becomes even more important. In the age of social media where misinformation and fake news can circulate online, people often look to journalists for an authentic picture.
Does media coverage tend to focus more on some types of coverage than others?
Can you see advantages to shifting this balance?
How could this be achieved?
What is the relationship between media and official sources/ experts?
Does this relationship need to improve?
Journalists exercise a ‘watchdog’ role, which has several shades. This often takes the form of holding authorities and institutions to account for failures of prevention, inadequate planning and mitigation, poor governance and ineffective response to a disaster. The watchdog role is often discouraged or portrayed as ‘negative reporting’ in some way. At the same time, recognising problems instead of brushing them under the carpet is essential to making sure that systems improve, and the impact of future disasters can be mitigated. The watchdog role must be performed to high standards of accuracy and journalistic ethics if it is not to rapidly lose credibility and come in for criticism.
Journalists also save lives in the long run through preventive coverage, drawing attention to neglected risks and budget and policy issues, or covering mitigation, preparedness and the process of long-term recovery. They can also promote resilience in communities both during a disaster and over the long term.
Unfortunately, while the media generally do a satisfactory job during disasters and in the lead-up to them, they do not always perform so well in building long-term resilience or promoting preparedness. Theoretically speaking, communication is central to most models of community resilience, but in practice its potential often goes unutilised. It is worth pointing out that when media narratives focus on risks and issues, they amplify them and increase the chances of them being addressed. This is a large part of the focus of this handbook, and several good practices and practical suggestions in this regard are covered in subsequent pages.
Different sections of the media could play different roles. National level media may be better placed to examine policy and funding, and to hold government responsible. However, local media may be more effective in:
What are the strengths of your local coverage of disasters?
Are there some weaknesses?
What can be learnt from media coverage elsewhere?
There are a number of factors within media organisations that govern long-term coverage of disasters and risk reduction, especially when a disaster is not currently underway. These range from the perceived value of the story, perceptions of whether the audience will be interested, scarcity of newsroom resources and, of course, attitudes within the newsroom.
The first hurdle you have to cross as a journalist trying to do a story on risk reduction or prevention is to convince your editor that you have a story to tell.
Megan Rowling, a journalist with the Thomson Reuters Foundation, advises simplifying jargon and focusing on good stories to tell in this piece she wrote at the time of the adoption of the Sendai Framework:
It seems that pretty much everyone, from U.N. specialists to aid workers to journalists, struggles to make disaster risk reduction (DRR) a sexy issue.
Jonathan Baker is a broadcaster and editor, and until 2010 was deputy head of newsgathering for the BBC. He has also served as principal of the BBC’s College of Journalism. He brings this experience to bear in this piece about the considerations your editor might have in mind. The views expressed here are his own.
Whether we like it or not, the way a media organization responds to a disaster will be driven first and foremost by how strong a story they think it is. To put it crudely: How bad is it?