Assessing the media’s tsunami coverage

IN Media Practice | 27/12/2006
Some $13 billion was pledged as aid to cope with the tsunami aftermath. The world would have not responded the way it did without the media.




Bangkok, (IANS) When the history of the deadly 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami comes to be written, will the role of the media be praised, criticised or just seen as inadequate?


`We didn`t do a good job in warning people. But once the disaster hit, we did a good job in (spreading the word),` said Colombo-based TV journalist Nalaka Gunawardene.


Meeting in the Thai capital one of the east and south Asian countries badly hit by the tsunami, journalists from the region took stock over the way the fourth estate responded to that tragic event. They pondered over how timely communication could save lives or mitigate the impact of disasters, whether the media needs to balance the public`s right to know with the right to dignity and privacy, limits and limitations of the media in disasters and whether too much is expected of the media when other social institutions are non-existent, collapsing or corrupted.


Some $13 billion was pledged by way of aid - not all materialised - to cope with the tsunami aftermath, making it the single largest donation response to a global calamity. `The world would have not responded the way it did without the media,` argued Gunawardene.


Many have pointed out that information is a vital form of aid in itself, but this is not sufficiently recognised by humanitarian organisations.


Malaysia-based Chin Saik Yoon, communications specialist and publisher of the alternative Southbound Press, recalled how his attempts to trace a Singapore-based non-resident Indian from Tamil Nadu, who saved a village with a phone call, had rebounded.


`Later I learnt that the man came to become one of the most hated in the village. Reports that no life had been lost there (because of the timely phone call) was misread to mean there was no damage but the village had been destroyed. The villagers were angry when they were bypassed for aid,` Chin said.


Said Asoka Dias of Sirasa TV/Mararaja TV from Sri Lanka, a country which lost 35,000 lives: `In Sri Lanka, tsunamis have been reported as far back as in 200 BC and as late as 1883. Yet when the tsunami story was breaking (in 2004), the biggest challenge was to find a word or a phrase to explain the tsunami in local languages.`


The United Nations Development Programme`s APDIP programme specialist Chanuka Wattegama says the only unintended good consequence of the tsunami was that blogs began to be seriously written and read in Sri Lanka. The country now has `100-200 bloggers, daily expressing their ideas`.


Bloggers, or informal diarists on the internet, were giving useful information during the tsunami, Wattegama said. Lisa Hiller, the UNDP Nepal`s press officer, argued that the Maldives got overlooked in aid because the initial message that went out was the situation was `fine` there. `Later, (it was realised) that the Maldives had got quite badly affected. But it was late,` she said.


Dhaka-based Drik Picture Library director Shahid ul Alam said: `As a media person you need to find a balance. What`s very important is sending out the messages, the real stories of what`s happening during the disaster. On the other hand, countries like mine are known for disasters. There`s a very strong stereotyping happening.`


Some shortcomings of the media logic were also pointed to. Nalini Rajan, dean of studies and associate professor at the Chennai-based Asian College of Journalism, observed: `As critics say, the media is very good at reporting an event but very bad at explaining processes that lead to an event.`


Journalist-turned-disaster researcher Amjad Bhatti from Islamabad called for a need for the media to redefine disasters and to shift away from being `largely obsessed with macro disasters`. He pointed out that slow-onset disasters are ignored in favour of sudden-onset ones.


`(For the media) a disaster which did not happen is not a story. For media any story needs to carry a shock value; if it bleeds, it leads. The `tsunamisation` of disasters have desensitised us,` he rued.


`Disasters have different categories. There are creeping disasters like drought. If 500 people die in a train mishap, it`s a big story. But if that many die by drinking (water contaminated with) pesticides, that`s not a story.`


Journalists also pointed to the challenge of `bringing out the human face of a large-scale disaster`. Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, India and the Maldives were among the countries worst hit by the 2004 tsunami, the second anniversary of which is being observed on December 26.


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