By Nalaka Gunawardene
As Hurricane Sandy hammered the US East Coast earlier this week, we had our own meteorological worries. A tropical cyclone – belatedly named Neelam – swept past parts of Sri Lanka’s North and East.
The two atmospheric turbulences were not comparable. Sandy was far more ferocious. But, Neelam caused enough disruption as well – it wasn’t just a passing gust of wind.
As I followed the two disasters through print, TV and web media, I wondered: how come we had more about Sandy in our own media than on Neelam?
Is it because, as some argue, the global media were so preoccupied with Sandy, and provided saturation coverage? Or are our own media outlets unable, or unwilling, to cover a local weather anomaly with depth and clarity?
We have been here before. During the first quarter of 2011, as the fury of La Niña played havoc with weather across Asia, I was struck – and frustrated – by similarly lop-sided coverage in our print and broadcast media. We first heard a lot more about the floods in Brisbane than about the equally horrendous ones in Batticaloa, occurring around the same time.
To be fair, covering any disaster during and after its occurrence is fraught with practical difficulties. Journalists have to race against deadlines. They battle with the elements and bureaucracies to gather, verify and process information. In the multi-channel and multimedia world of today, they also have to keep an eye on the competition.
So, this isn’t quite media- bashing as self reflection. Having to sustain 24/7 coverage for their fragmented and distracted audiences places enormous pressures on news media to break news first – and reflect later. In this scenario, how can empathetic, ethical and balanced reporting happen?
Media researchers in the developing world have long accused the western and globalized news media of having an implicit ‘hierarchy of death’ and destruction. It was clear during the 2004 December tsunami, when western tourists caught in the disaster had more global media coverage than many more locals similarly, or worse, affected.
But, our own city-based media have their own hierarchy of destruction. Urban flooding gets plenty of front page coverage and ‘breaking news’ treatment. But, much worse flooding incidents, in provincial or rural areas, receive much less coverage. This has been going on for decades.
During the early years of my work as a journalist, I myself was guilty of this imbalance. I reported and reflected on the urban floods of June 1992 where my own suburban house was flooded. We devoted much space and air time for those floods because it hit many of us personally.
Eighteen months later, a much worse flood covered nearly one third of Sri Lanka. Although it affected twice as many people and stayed for a longer period, there was limited media interest. It was somebody else’s disaster, not ours…
During the two decades since, we have seen more media outlets emerge. We also have a rise in disaster frequency and intensity (attributable, at least in part, to a gradually warming planet). Yet, astonishingly, the disparities of coverage remain.
All is not lost. The rapid march of information and communication technologies (ICTs) has placed simple and affordable tools in the hands of ordinary people. The ubiquitous mobile phone is the most powerful among them, especially when connected to the Internet. This is changing the news media game in ways that we are only just beginning to understand.
As Sanjana Hattotuwa, founder Editor of Groundviews.org and a researcher on ICTs, has noted: “Disasters are about resilience – how we pick ourselves up after a human tragedy and slowly return to normalcy. ICTs help us understand how we can help communities spring back to life after a disaster. They humanise a tragedy, the scale of which may be too large to otherwise comprehend.”
Writing a chapter in Communicating Disasters: An Asia Pacific Handbook (UNDP & TVE Asia Pacific, 2007) that I co-edited, Sanjana further said: “Citizen journalists, flawed as they may be as individuals, are nevertheless tremendously powerful as a group. They have the potential to capture, over the long term, a multiplicity of rich and insightful perspectives on disasters not often covered by the traditional media.”
In theory, anyone with a smart phone (at least a million are in use across Sri Lanka) and the keenness to bear witness to unfolding events can instantly become a citizen journalist. In practice, many prefer to remain information consumers than producers (and that’s fine too).
Without the trappings of institutionalized media (mediasaurus?), citizen journalists are quick to adopt new communication tools and platforms. Last year, for example, some of the first images of the Batticaloa floods were posted on Facebook. Live updates came from grassroots organizations like Sarvodaya, who quickly leveraged Twitter and Facebook to raise awareness and solicit flood relief donations. Sri Lanka Red Cross has been regularly tweeting during the past few days, giving first hand accounts of Neelam’s impact. Their information flow is better than official sources that are slow and patchy.
Citizen journalists’ output can be diverse - from fleeting text updates on social media platforms like Twitter, to more detailed reports and/or images shared through blogs.
In 2010-11, Groundviews.org created the first online maps on the ground conditions, relief work, shelters and weather conditions on both occasions when Sri Lanka had La Niña inspired flooding. They used free Google maps and other tools - none of which requires advanced web skills.
Combined, those interactive maps contained hundreds of incident reports and updates. In contrast, the static maps produced by Lankan newspapers and TV channels were grossly inadequate.
Covering a geographically distributed disaster is never easy. Most Colombo-based media groups rely on local correspondents to feed their headquarters with information and images. When some were directly affected by mega-floods, media houses found their news feeds cut off.
The more widely distributed citizen journalists, on the other hand, were more robust due to their multiple numbers, locations and technology tools. We would expect mainstream newspaper or broadcast houses to work closely with citizen journalists to improvise on the quality and speed of disaster coverage. In reality, they still try to go it alone.
In today’s networked society, commercially operating news media are no longer the sole gatherers or distributors of news. Some members of their (formerly passive) audience are now mini news operations on their own.
What does this mean for communicating in disaster situations that requires understanding and sensitivity? In which ways can we find synergy between mainstream and new/social media, so together they can better serve the public interest? What value-additions can the mainstream media still bring to the coverage of disasters? And what to do about ‘Chicken Little’ reporters who try to link everything to a looming climate catastrophe? I don’t have all the answers, but keep asking these necessary questions.
One thing is certain: as we brace for more extreme weather events and other disasters, all of us – old media, new media and hybrid media – must adapt fast. If not, we will either drown in our own apathy, or be swept away by the reality of collaborative, user-involved news generation and consumption.
Business as usual is not an option.