Media and disasters

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Many media organizations are involved in relief operations, and there’s no question that their efforts are helping alleviate the humanitarian crisis the floods and landslides have created.

No one so far has argued that the media should keep solely to their primary responsibility, which is that of reporting and interpreting events of public significance. The crisis is after all of such proportions, and the government capacity to deal with it so limited, that the people and the communities affected need all the help they can get.

Media involvement in relief operations is also consistent with the other roles they have assumed in addition to that of providing information and helping shape opinion. Those roles — among them prodding government agencies into action and serving the intermediary between government and citizens — are the result of the fabled failure of government institutions to provide the services they’re mandated to provide.

While such roles have probably not compromised the media’s basic responsibility, they have led to other demands that could do otherwise. Among these is the demand for the media to assist police agencies in apprehending crime suspects, and that of providing government agencies with the information it needs to prosecute suspected wrong doers.

While doing relief work does not hamper the capacity to report events and interpret them, the media’s assisting police agencies can make that task problematic once the media are regarded as assets and informants, or worse, as agents of security forces. The demand to furnish information additional to what the media have aired or printed — in many cases, information given in confidence — on the other hand compromises the relationship of journalists with their sources, and therefore undermines their capacity to obtain and provide the public the information it needs.

Obviously a line needs to be drawn between those roles that do not compromise, or which even enhance, media’s capacity to report and interpret events, and those that do. But while involvement in relief operations does emphasize that alleviating human suffering is everyone’s, and no less the media’s, responsibility, it is on how well they discharge their news function as a basic responsibility that the media must be judged.

Media performance during the present crisis has been mixed. While the media have been relentless in providing information, content analysis of the reporting over the major networks and broadsheets reveals deficiencies in contextualization and backgrounding, and limited information sourcing.

While providing such details as how many barangay have been flooded — and how many people have died or are missing — were crucial especially at the height of the rains, flooding and landslides, such information as why there was little warning on the imminence of flooding and the intensity of the rainfall has been limited even in the aftermath. Equally apparent is the absence of information on the government’s state of disaster preparedness.

These deficiencies are at least partly due to the media’s limited sourcing of information. The limitation is most probably due to most reporters’ and editors’ being unaware of disaster preparedness and policy issues, which in turn is a result of the day to day media focus on politics and scandals.

Also among the more obvious characteristics of the coverage of tropical storm Ondoy (Ketsana) and typhoon Pepeng (Parma) was most reporters’ scant knowledge of such basics as the difference between depressions, storms and typhoons, as well as what storm surges are, and even the distinction between typhoon strength and typhoon movement.

The result, among others, was a failure to ask the questions that could have addressed such public anxieties as whether a typhoon’s packing sustained winds of 175 kilometers per hour meant that those places not directly in the path of the typhoon would be subject to the same winds.

This limited capacity is unacceptable and almost criminal. Accurate and relevant information is crucial during disasters. The Philippines is one of the most disaster-prone countries in Asia. It is visited by an average of 20 typhoons per year, and, because it is on the Pacific “ring of fire,” is subject as well to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.

It would seem only logical for the media, in discharging the responsibility of providing information that could make the difference between life or death, to train a corps of reporters and analysts competent in disaster reporting, analysis and policy, given the country’s history of disasters. Instead reporters from such beats as defense are deployed in disaster coverage, about which, despite the National Disaster Coordinating Council’s being part of Defense, they lack the background needed to do a good job of.

Providing information is the fundamental expression of media responsibility. But the discharge of that responsibility requires adherence to established professional and ethical standards, which include fairness and humaneness, factual and contextual accuracy, relevance and impartiality.

There is nothing wrong and everything that’s right in doing relief work in times of disasters such as the one the country is experiencing. But still and all is providing information far more crucial for the media, whether in the long or short-term. It’s a fact Philippine media organizations must not lose sight of, even as they package relief goods and truck them to affected areas.

(BusinessWorld)

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