Mora and disaster reporting disaster

Kusal Perera (Daily Mirror)

We have been witnessing painful Screaming of the State machinery at times of tragedy and disaster. It is now far worse than what it was over 12 years ago in December 2004, when the Tsunami swept the Southern and Eastern coasts.    

Tragedies have not been too rare in the recent past. Beginning from Sinhala and Hindu New Year day, in just 38 days there were three tragedies, beginning with the Meethotamulla waste dump slide, collapsing of a multi storey building in Colombo and the Mora rain storm that now accounts for more than 200 deaths, 80 odd missing and more than 400,000 displaced.    

The lethargy and inefficiency of the State is part of the socially justifiable excuse for media to leave their actual responsibility aside to go big time with distribution of donations at times of national grief. We thus come to the important question, “What responsibility has the media in times of national tragedy?”Answering it begins with the condition, media is fundamentally responsible to society, in how information and news is disseminated.    

Our media, including the State owned and especially the electronic, web/digital and social media do not function with that responsibility to society. In times of tragedy, web/digital and social media lives with a “panic button”. Tragedy and disaster are grieving events in this new and competing media culture to post unchecked, unedited often “source-not found info”.    It is a mad haste, to be the first to post stories from disaster zones.    

Electronic media that’s audio and visual media, is far worse in shaping social psyche. Though not very apt in reporting and coverage, print media in general still reports and covers events and incidents in a comparatively decent and a palatable way.   Web/digital and social media is not of much importance, except when mainstream media picks from web/digital and social media and develop them, their way.    

In Sri Lanka we don’t have an adequate “critical” mass in web/digital and social media for them to be taken seriously as positively impacting on society.    Despite some “pundits” claiming social media played a major role in the past two elections, social media is more a Sinhala Buddhist racist platform, dominated by a very small group with fake names and anonymous presence.    

Even issues like deforesting, is taken on an anti-Muslim campaign and not as an environmental issue.    

In short, no media in Sri Lanka functions with a conscious responsibility towards society, towards people. There is not much difference between State owned and private media either in how social responsibility is ignored and shirked.    

It is in that sorry context one gets trapped in the visual media culture that dominates the recipient mood. For visual media with FM radio following, any Sinhala Buddhist event or festival and any tragedy is a “media product” that could be sold and used for station image building.    Vesak was there for over a week. They had numerous  “Buddha relics” used for big sponsorships and station image building among the Sinhala Buddhist audience. These “religious marketing” does have their limitations. They can only attract a particular religious population in this long polarised society.    

Yet Christian/Catholic, Hindu and Muslim events and festivals don’t gain that market space as Vesak and Poson. That’s a 70.4 per cent segment in society, all media compete to capture.    

Tragedies and disasters in this country nevertheless cut across those ethno-religious demarcations. The Muslim person whose mosque and the business were attacked, does not ask the victim, if she or he is Muslim, when distributing relief.     The Christian whose church was attacked does not choose who gets their relief distributed. The Tamil who collects relief don’t ask if they would go to Sinhalese. Tragedies and disasters turn the whole society into a single emotionally charged, large donating station with media stations stepping in as popular collecting centres.    It is within this social mood, tragedies and disasters become good “media boosters” that can be used right across the country. This is truer especially with visual media stations. It is the ability of visual media in particular to immediately commodify tragedies and disasters that allow them to leave social responsibility by the wayside to access wider social reach for station image building.    

In fact over the years, media outlets have established themselves as very conspicuous and large distribution centres. Their advantage is that people don’t question responsibilities in their rush to hand over relief.    The fact is, even in its most lethargic and inefficient level of delivery, no media can match the State machinery. No donor agency can reach the affected people the way the State can. It is the State that mobilises the three forces into relief work.    

No media has the resources for necessary logistics, as does the State. It is still the State that has mobility to move into affected areas, even though in depleted form. This fact, the superiority of the State in deployment of personnel, equipment and machinery for relief and distribution of material as aid is never highlighted in media.    Most visual and electronic media design programmes to promote themselves over and above the State and its operations.    

With Non-Governmental Agencies and the media also joining in relief supply, there are patches created that go unattended to and areas that are over fed with relief. This was a common deformity even during Tsunami relief work. There were families who had never been to sea, getting not one FRP boat but two.    There were families who got funds to repair their houses, not from one, but from two or three donors. There were also those many families who were still pleading for help and aid.    

Non-Governmental Agencies and media outlets collecting aid at the expense of the ordinary public with large hearts, only move around easily accessible points for due coverage of donations as their charitable work.    One would note that in this present disaster too, there are popular areas the media often talk about. There are areas that were totally neglected, even by politicians for many days.    

It is more the visual media channels that highlight their own relief work in competition with others. News coverage in them on the Mora storm that created havoc in Southern Sri Lanka, begins with their own relief voyage given high priority. Thereafter it is about the human tragedy in pictures, the crying and the weeping. Some news about possible further damage with a weather report presented in the drabbest and crudest manner with less information than necessary follows thereafter.    

Often news on flooding and earth slide disaster concludes with some favourite politician or two given publicity.    This disaster reporting certainly is NOT disaster reporting.   

Most importantly, disaster reporting is about avoiding presentation of news in a manner that could panic society. It is an accepted norm, disaster reporting must prioritise and provide all what the Government decides without comments and how the State operates. It should keep the people informed of developing situations covering every aspect of State initiated and operated disaster control measures.    Disaster reporting is also about educating people to meet emergency situations. Reporting should also include lapses by the State in a constructive dialogue with responsible State officials avoiding political colours.    

In short, the media has to play the role of the “watch dog” it is expected to be and the credible informant/educator it should be in times of crisis.     This responsibility is openly violated today-violated for the benefit of image building in a competitive advertising market. What is conveniently forgotten is human tragedies don’t ethically and morally allow for competition for individual gains. Not even in business, in an ethical, civilised world.    Disaster coverage and reporting has thus been developed into three clear phases. The immediate reporting of the disaster, its nature, extant of damage caused, information for people on safe places and safety measures to be taken and also precautions is perhaps the first phase of reporting disaster.    The second phase is to create awareness and provide information on what is happening on the ground in terms of relief and recovery and play ‘vigilante’ on how efficient the relief work is, and to question if they cannot be better executed or if there are easy and more comfortable alternate options.    

Third is post damage and perhaps more important for the future. The media among other players can develop a discourse on what had gone wrong to cause a tragedy, if it could have been avoided, how similar disasters can be negated in the future and what planning needs to be put in place for that.    A research by Erin L. Bohensky and Anne M. Leitch, on 2011 Brisbane flood reporting by media, titled “Framing the flood: A media analysis of themes of resilience in the 2011 Brisbane flood” say:   “…..the news media was one important vehicle of several through which the flood could be understood and internalised.

Examining how the flood was framed in the media provides insight into the broad public perception of floods. In particular, analysis of local and national newspaper reporting of the Brisbane flood illuminates how experience of a natural disaster frames perceptions of climate change and perceptions of governments’ ability to respond to a disaster event.”    Does our media coverage of the Mora storm provide such possibilities for the future?    Sadly not.    It is thus important to discuss not only in society but also within media and professional organisations on their responsibility in disaster reporting and coverage.    Perhaps “The Editors’ Guild” could initiate that discourse. 

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