Vol. XLIV 13 February 2001 B.No. 30
(24 Magha 1922)
ROLE OF MEDIA IN THE AFTERMATH OF DISASTER
They can be monitored, some can be predicted, yet the exact timing, the devastation and destruction cannot be gauged and foreseen. Everything happens in seconds. There is no escape. This background paper seeks to provide some information on the role of media as a conduit with the rest of the human world when the wrecked and the grieving try to begin their lives afresh from the rubble.
RESEARCH, REFERENCE AND TRAINING DIVISION
(Ministry of Information and Broadcasting)
ROLE OF MEDIA IN THE AFTERMATH OF DISASTER
A quarter-century ago research on disaster was dominated by physical scientists and engineers. Little attempt had been made to tap the social sciences to better understand the economic, social, and political ramifications of extreme natural events.
Hazard research now encompasses disciplines such as climatology, economics, engineering, geography, geology, law, meteorology, planning, seismology, and sociology. Professionals in those and other fields have continued to investigate how engineering projects, warnings, land-use management, planning for response and recovery, insurance, and building codes can help individuals and groups adapt to natural hazards and disastrous situations, as well as reduce the resulting deaths, injuries, costs, and social, environmental, and economic disruption. These dedicated people have greatly improved our understanding of the physical process underlying natural hazards and the complexities of social decision-making before, during, and after disasters.
We could employ better planning, land-use controls, and other preventive and mitigation measures to reduce the toll in the first place. Today, at long last, public and private programmes and policies have begun to adopt mitigation as the cornerstone of the nation's approach to addressing natural and technological hazards.
But events during the past quarter-century have shown that natural disasters and the technological hazards that may accompany them are not problems that can be solved in isolation. Rather, they are symptoms of broader and more basic problems. Losses from disasters and the fact that the nation cannot seem to reduce them result from shortsighted and narrow conceptions of the human relationship to the natural environment.
Many disaster losses rather than stemming from unexpected events are the predictable result of interactions among three major systems: the physical environment, which includes hazardous events; the social and demographic characteristics of the communities that experience them; and the buildings, roads, bridges, and other components of the constructed environment. Growing loss result partly from the fact that the nation's capital stock is expanding, but they also stem from the fact that all these systems and their interactions are becoming more complex with each passing year.
Three main influences are at work. First, the earth's physical systems are constantly changing, which is a witness to the current warming of the global climate. Scientists expect a warming climate to produce more dramatic meteorological events such as storms, floods, quakes, drought, and extreme temperatures. Changes in the demographic composition and distribution of the population mean greater exposure to many hazards and disasters. The number of people residing in earthquake-prone regions and coastal areas subject to cyclones, for example, is growing rapidly. Worsening inequality of wealth also makes many people more vulnerable to disasters and less able to recover from them. Third, the built of public utilities, transportation systems, communications and homes and office buildings is growing in density, making the potential losses from natural forces larger.
By providing advance warnings of severe storms, we may well have encouraged more people to build in fragile coastal areas. Such development, in turn, makes the areas more vulnerable by destroying protective natural features.
Rather than resulting from surprise environmental events, disasters arise from the interactions among the Earth's physical systems, its human systems, and its built infrastructure. A broad view that encompasses all three of these dynamic systems and interactions among them can enable professionals to find better solutions.
Human beings not nature are the cause of disaster losses, which stem from choices about where and how human development will proceed. Nor is there a final solution to natural hazards, since technology cannot make the world safe from all the forces of nature.
Disasters are more likely where unsustainable development occurs, and the converse is also true; disasters hinder movement toward sustainability because, for example, they degrade the environment and undercut the quality of life. Sustainable mitigation activities should strengthen a community's social, economic, and environmental resiliency, and vice versa.
One central problem is that many of the accepted methods for coping with hazards have been used on the idea that people can use technology to control nature to make them safe. What's more, most strategies for managing disasters have followed a traditional planning model: study the problem, implement one solution, and move on to the next problem. This approach casts disasters as static and mitigation as an upward, positive, linear trend.
To redress those shortcomings, we must shift to a policy of "sustainable disaster mitigation." This concept links wise management of natural resources with local economic and social resiliency, viewing disaster mitigation as an integral part of a much larger context. But to head-off the continued rise in tolls from disasters, those principles must become more explicit.
The view that hazards are relatively static has led to the false conclusion that any mitigation effort is desirable and will in some vague way reduce the grand total of future losses. In reality, change can occur quickly and non-linearly. Human adaptation to disasters must become as dynamic as the problems presented by disasters themselves.
In understanding and preparing for disasters there are several important, rarely considered yet seemingly obvious considerations. They are unique. There is no typical disaster and, consequently, there is no blueprint. Disasters happen when least expected, taking everyone by surprise. The demands on the media reflect the demands on emergency services; they are well in excess of usual emergencies. Their consequences are unpredictable, well beyond the moment. The personal and social impact quickly extends outside of those immediately and directly involved, affecting entire communities and concerned outsiders. Invariably they become public property. Their very randomness reminds people that they are their loved ones and have been victims.
The irony is that the very industry which has developed, protected and maintained some semblance of freedom of information - the media industry - imposes tightly-drawn boundaries in gathering, and producing news. Nowhere is this more sharply focussed than in responding to and reporting domestic disasters, particularly those which involve mass fatalities and, occasionally, where journalists are at, or close to, the scene for another purpose.
Disasters, inevitably, are complex. They require effective inter-media, and intra-media, cooperation. Yet, contrasting professional priorities often emphasise and exacerbate rather than eliminate organisational conflict. Consequently, the psychosocial needs of the bereaved, of survivors, of witnesses and of rescuers, can easily be subordinated to the priorities of the media. The media commands an extraordinary power to do good or bad, because of its capacity to influence events and minds. But the media is often regarded as searching, revelatory and persistent in its pursuit of vested interests. The media is also, in itself, powerful. Putting reality together the media sets agendas, makes news and impacts directly on events as they unfold. By whatever means or forms the mass media revamps style and presentation, it remains fiercely conventional in content and representation.
The use of the mass media to create awareness has been based on the belief of early communication researchers according to whom there was a direct cause and effect relationship between media messages and their audiences. The media is thus regarded as credible sources of information influencing its subscribers and their behaviour. It is also now regarded as intervening influences in creating awareness and assessment of performance. When national sentiment is involved humanitarian challenge should be greatest before the media.
Prior to the moment of disaster, media operate according to established routines, agreed policies and professional practices. What happens when these routines are disrupted? Whose responsibility is it to foresee, plan for and coordinate effective, efficient and appropriate crisis responses? What is the media's role? How can the need to know, the public interest, be squared with the authorities' control of information and the victims, /survivors, right to privacy?
There is little time for conflict resolution. It is literally a moment, which separates normality from chaos, complacency from foreseeability. The emergency or major incident plans have clear objectives: save life; rescue; evacuate; secure the site; restore order. To meet these objectives the plans by definition are mechanistic, ascribing role and function, establishing lines of communication and information. What is initiated is a quasi-military operation, which specifies chains of command, duties and responsibilities with the aim of instituting effective order through efficient function. It is a classic systems approach to a most complex human event.
In reality the first rescuers, often putting themselves in considerable danger, are themselves survivors or witnesses. Occasionally journalists are caught up in the disaster, or are soon to the scene. But it is the immediate aftermath that is so important for survivors, witnesses and the bereaved - the very time when priorities conflict and agencies clash. The dynamics shift from the urgency of rescue and evacuation - primary help to the victims - to meeting the aftermath needs of survivors, witnesses, rescue workers, relatives, friends and the bereaved. More than one of these categories apply to many of those directly involved. Aftermath processes involve accommodating the dead, treating the injured, supporting survivors, receiving relatives, identifying bodies, taking statements and administering early psychological support. The shift is from emergency response to crisis support, to providing appropriate care.
Disasters are also very fluid in nature with needs changing minute-to-minute. This fluidity necessitates a procedure for determining and updating what the overall disaster situation is and what problems need to be tackled. Typically, it is unclear to the responders who have the responsibility for this task, and in many disasters the process is neglected.
When assessment of the disaster situation is carried out, it is generally done independently by a number of organisations. Often, each agency limits its assessment to those observations of direct consequence to that particular organisation. In many cases, the information obtained by these individual organisations is not shared or pooled. Accordingly, an overall picture of the scope, severity, and types of disruption and damage does not emerge early in the crisis.
Television covering disaster has two important limitations and beyond that an inherent tendency to sensationalise. It is true that the screen shows only what the camera films. In turn the camera films only what the man behind it focuses upon. This is not merely a question of subjective choice. It is also a technical matter. One may not get the picture the eye can see. You only get what the lens can fit in.
There is a dichotomy, in media coverage of disasters and other traumatising events. Freedom of information, the presumed 'right to know', is set against official regulation and management of information -' regimes of truth' - derived in the power of definers. 'Public interest' an amorphous yet important feature of democratic societies is set against the 'right to privacy'. But then the less politically dynamic construct, 'human interest', is set against the exploitation of grief.
The inherent tendency to sensationalise can be easily taken care of either by pulling out and showing wide shots that put event in perspective or by wisely written commentary.
Sensational stories do make life more difficult in a difficult time. The only thing is that when journalists are up against tight time deadlines, which is more often than not the case, such balancing can be squeezed out. The first limitation is that TV has problems handling what it cannot show. Though there is so much more news in the papers than on television just because of this reason, the press too quite often come up with cooked-up stories. When people are anxious and fearful, the only thing that needs to be presented is the facts, with objectivity and accuracy, not seeking the immediate attention.
Inadequate appreciation of the limitations of television and its inherent tendency to sensationalise coupled with the fact that news on television is both more frequent and accessible and often has greater impact can lead to unintended distortions or imperfect understanding. In such circumstances news and views can become perilously mixed up.
Care should be taken not to bring to light inaccurate, misleading or distorted material. Information should not be gathered through intimidation, harassment or persistent pursuit. In cases involving grief or shock, enquiries must be carried out and approaches made with sympathy and discretion. The end product must be handled sensitively. Media must not generally obtain or seek information or pictures through misrepresentation or subterfuge. The acquiring of information and pictures should be confined to straightforward means and there should not be any intrusion into private grief and distress, the exception being acquisition and intrusion in the public interest. A working definition of the public interest is focal for setting limits to permissible investigation and recognising unacceptable levels of intrusion. Where the boundaries are set, and who constructs them, lie at the heart of self-regulation within the media accountability debate.
If access is purely for short-term, quick-story payoffs geared to sales and ratings, then journalism will continue to stand accused of riding roughshod over personal grief and suffering. In establishing a more considered version of the public, journalists and editors must take into account the interests, experiences and contexts of those directly involved. The truth, in all its complexity, of disaster, of tragedy, is not reducible to sound bites, to clever one-liners. Knowledge requires information and information requires depth.
Media programmes have to strike a careful balance between unwarranted intrusion and reporting the news as they find it. They must neither exploit grief and suffering nor sanitise the news, excluding the viewer from the information they need to understand the day's events.
Covering of disasters, observing tragedy, can never be a detached business. Yet some form of detachment is important if the story told is not to be overburdened with the emotion of the moment, stripped of context and, therefore, meaning. Media officers are news managers, if not news manufacturers. The investigative journalist, then, is pushed inevitably into the heart of the story, searching out people's truths. And here lies the apparent dichotomy - public interest demanding personal intrusion. Yet it need not be so.
During crisis situations such as cyclones or earthquakes or man-made disasters, there is a role for mass media to play. Mass media have the right to safeguard citizens' lives. They have to inform the living regarding disasters and on safeguard measures.
Natural disasters are unavoidable, so early warnings and precautionary measures would help in minimising the loss to life and property. Reporting genuine facts with constructive criticism by media would greatly help in restoring the order.
Boosting the morale of the afflicted and those engaged in relief operations during any disaster is of primary importance. Media has to guard itself against vested interests and should not create chaos and discord among the different sections of society on religion, region and economic grounds.
The communications revolution, which has all the media as its ingredients, reduced the possibility of excuses and increased accountability. Now no one can say they did not know. Through the media, the public has acquired a new face and a voice which has assertiveness. People spoke up loud and clear, they identified their problems, their needs they accused, they demanded.
The ability of news organisations to maintain a constant stream of information and two-way communications has always helped us to react with a greater sense of urgency. When you constantly witness the magnitude of suffering before your very eyes, you are almost shamed into doing something about it. This is partly because of the media.
Communicator April-June 1999 (No.2)
Telescope: The News: earth shattering - Shailaja Bajpai (The Indian Express, 28 January 2001)
Sunday Sentiments: A critique of television news - Karan Thapar (The Hindustan Times, 29 February 2001)
The final countdown - Bhaskar Ghose (The Hindustan Times, 08 February 2001)
Studies in Modern Mass Media and Communication - S.Ganesh
Disasters by Design: A Reassessment of Natural Hazards in the US, http://books.nap.edu/html/disastersbydesign/
Reporting Disaster, www.cf.ac.uk/jomec/issues99/scratomain.html