Media In Disaster: Event Vs Issue
Federal as well as State governments have lately initiated rehabilitation of storm-hit people in Bara and Parsa districts. The tragedy brought by the powerful rainstorm in some villages of the two districts on March 31, is the third major disaster after 2015. The massive earthquake occurred in 2015 followed by devastating flood in the Terai in 2017. All of them were the natural disasters but were different in nature. The earthquake was not completely beyond the expectations, but timing of the occurrence and magnitude were uncertain. As preparedness against it, the government and development and humanitarian organisations had been working in policy and awareness raised after spending a huge amount. Floods also bring a tragedy during the rainy season each year by claiming several lives and causing huge damage to properties.
In contrast to these two disasters, the rainstorm of Bara and Parsa was unique. According to government officials, the disaster was probably the first ever incident of its kind. Irrespective of what kind of disaster is, media in Nepal have been quite familiar with reporting in disaster situations. Nepali media have played a very important role in informing people, broadly the audience, and making voiceless people’s voices heard and exert pressure on responsible authorities to act for relief, response and recovery. Despite crucial role played by Nepali media, there have been several issues that could be discussed to get things done in a better way.
Writing news about disaster is not, of course, a pleasing job even though many of us are schooled to treat bad news as good news. Although there have been some criticisms against media for promoting bad news, there is nothing bad in treating bad news as good news because news about something bad demands corrective actions and offers good news to media again in a cyclic process. But a bad thing really happens when media focuses on the emotional aspects of the story for sensational effects. In Nepal, most of the cases of disaster reporting seem to have been dominated by the trend of highlighting emotional sides of disaster-affected people whose tragic stories stimulate audience interests contributing to the popularity of the media itself.
The tone of most of news reports about rainstorm is similar in all dailies and their news stories’ angle revolved around on almost the similar standpoint that the rescue and relief were not enough, victims are forced to sleep under open sky, and they don’t have enough foods to eat. In addition, some news also highlighted the issues of vulnerable people such as pregnant women and children in relation to their protection and nutrition issues. There were also complaints against the government over its way of response in the disaster affected community. There is no doubt about truthfulness of the news but our news stories present a complete picture of disasters and several other aspects connected to relief, recovery and rehabilitation. This is a principal question.
While writing about an event and the consequences brought by a disaster, it is equally important to look at the disaster from a bigger lens with perspective of disaster management cycle searching for linkage among preparedness, rescue, relief, response and recovery. When such disasters occur, the immediate focus is always on rescue and relief. In the context of Bara-Parsa storm, the government’s response was not that much delayed, but confusions persisted on the ground due to lack of identification, details and enlisting of the households that would require immediate needs.
The District Disaster Management Committee has expected autonomous municipalities to execute response management, but those local governments lacked capacity to handle the situation despite having an opportunity to manage relief made available by donors in their own community in a more effective way. As the people have a tendency of securing both food and non-food items as much as they can during the disaster situation, no one might be willing to tell what they don’t need. In such a situation, crosschecking of the fact brings journalists closer to the objective reporting instead of generalising the situation based on what they were told by the affected people and other interest groups.
It is a longstanding problem in the Terai that people, especially pregnant women and children, are deprived of nutritious foods, and access to the health services due to poverty. The effect of storm has added more problems to the health and livelihood of people in Bara, but as some media reported, the storm is not the only factor preventing vulnerable populations from their rights to nutrition, education and health. By reading reports about the people suffering from diarrhoea, we can merely assume that lack of hygienic practice might have caused infection as the disaster increases vulnerability. But at the same time, we often overlook the tendency of the possibility of occurrence of similar hazards during a normal situation. Things sometimes become newsy only when they are reported, and disasters turn into an opportunity for the media to tell an untold story in new formats. Therefore, whether the problems of people the media report are the development-related or immediately created by the disasters is the issue the media community must think of.
The positive side of Nepali journalistic practice is that media have been putting special emphasis on vulnerable community of society by bringing their issues to limelight in a crisis. The Journalist Code of Conduct, 2016 stresses the need for journalists being more responsible in rendering special assistance, through the dissemination of information, towards the upliftment and development of children, women, elderly citizens, the incapacitated, the helpless, differently able persons, the excluded classes, communities, regions, linguistic groups, the minorities and the obsolescent communities. It also highlights that journalists and mass media should maintain special sensitivity and alertness on issues such as difficulty over human lives, public safety, public health, social courtesy by showing endurance while collecting and disseminating information on natural disaster, sensitive condition or incident. At the same time, the Code of Conduct reminds journalists of being carried away from subjectivity by asserting that they must stand firm to the principles of objectivity and to disseminate factual news and balanced opinion.
Let’s relate these statements to the context of Bara again. Pheta Rural Municipality in Bara was central to political leaders, humanitarian workers and journalists for two reasons: first, it was nearer to the district headquarters of Kalaiya, and second, the human casualties were higher. A majority of the report seemed to have generalised the context from the standpoint of the tragedy seen in that municipality. It shows that sometimes, our choice to stay in comfort zone also prevents us from deep diving into the accuracy, truthfulness and multi-dimensionality of an issue. Therefore, fact checking should be the taken as a strong instrument to get rid of emotions and stay away from getting overwhelmed in crises.
(Sharma is a freelance journalist and writes on development and media issues. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)