Disaster reporting

Stuss has a great post today about news coverage of disasters. With particular reference to the current fires and the saturation of “special news editions” on commercial television.

“This week I am again appalled at the news coverage. As far as I’m concerned, it is just not appropriate to show extended footage of any disaster. Regular updates, fine, good even, but not regular as in replace everything you would normally be showing.”

As a journalism graduate working in PR I’ve got some thoughts on the issue. I reckon these are probably worth posting here – even though they’re pretty much verbatim what I posted as a comment on Stuss’s post.

As a “journalist” I’m in two minds on this. Disasters like this are real news – and there are people who want to know every bit of the story – particularly if they have friends or families in affected areas and haven’t been able to make contact. But, sometimes not a lot is happening and there’s a whole lot of repetition – and then there’s the talking to about 10 secondary sources.

Experts in their fields. So you have the eye witnesses, the firefighters, the fire commissioner, the politician, the police and other involved parties having their say… then you have the behavioural psychologists, the weathermen, the university professor, the opinion columnist, etc, all throwing their opinions into the mix.

If you consider the September 11 story – the news coverage started off reporting just the facts. From and objective point – two planes crashed into the World Trade Centre buildings. There were plenty of “objective” updates. The buildings collapsed. The rescue effort. All of these were newsworthy elements and there were lots of primary sources to be talked to.

Then, in the days following the actual moment of impact there was a heap of other stuff thrown into the coverage. Speculation on why the buildings collapsed, interviews with engineers about the tower’s structure, interviews with people who knew about the effect of heat on steel. That sort of thing. Then there was the “why” element – terrorism experts, politicians. Everyone had two cents worth to throw in. Reporting a disaster is like peeling an onion – you can split a story into layers and layers of complexity.

There’s an inverted relationship between time and newsworthy content – unless new things are happening all the time.

Because of ratings pressure and the desire not to be “one upped” if something significant does happen all the networks are simultaneously peeling the onion. They need to keep doing that to keep the coverage rolling.

There should be a dedicated “disaster channel” and each network should donate resources to a pool of talent – and they could all draw stuff out of that pool for nightly bulletins.

As a viewer, I tend to get sick of the special coverage pretty quickly if nothing new is happening. The fact that I keep watching comes from my inner news addict than from any form of compelling content.

Having dedicated event coverage is also good for continuity of viewing. The nature of big stories is that there are lots of new bits happening all the time. I would be very frustrated if my regular programming was constantly interrupted by updates. At that point I think keeping the “special news bulletin” thing running is less disruptive than otherwise.

Extended coverage of disasters can have a demonstrably large effect on children. I did an assignment on that at uni once.

The other problem with the reporting aspect comes when circumstances are blown up to pad out bulletins. Take the current flooding in North Queensland as a case study.

Ingham is underwater. That’s bad for Ingham. But news bulletins around the country have been featuring journalists based in Townsville in their weather updates. Townsville has had some water. Yesterday’s king tide didn’t help things.

But to use images from the small percentage of streets in Townsville with flooding and tar everywhere with the same watery brush is unconscionable reporting and does significant damage to the city’s reputation and its economy. Tourism bookings to Townsville are being canceled all over the place. We’re in contact with Tourism Queensland’s international offices daily because people think Townsville is underwater.

Overstating the case in a disaster is a spur of the moment decision by news producers with pretty big consequences for those on the ground. This is particularly problematic when secondary source experts with no bona fides are thrown in front of a camera to spread their particular brand of hysteria.

Try being the person who has to fix the idea that Townsville will be closed for the next two months due to flooding.

The author

Nathan runs St Eutychus. He loves Jesus. His wife. His daughter. His son. His other daughter. His dog. Coffee. And the Internet. He is the campus pastor at Creek Road South Bank, a graduate of Queensland Theological College (M. Div) and the Queensland University of Technology (B. Journ). He spent a significant portion of his pre-ministry-as-a-full-time-job life working in Public Relations, and now loves promoting Jesus in Brisbane and online. He can't believe how great it is that people pay him to talk and think about Jesus.

30 thoughts on “Disaster reporting”

  1. Perhaps it says more about our society’s addiction information voyeurism than anything else. When constantly fed a diet of horrendous images and happenings it takes more and more to convince us of the seriousness of an event.

    The current ‘stop everything’ fire reportage as an example.

    1. The other side of that coin is that when a serious event does occur people want to know the extent – not from a voyeuristic standpoint but because it’s actually something worth knowing and caring about. And worth seeing.

      I would think the Red Cross Appeal’s record donations are a result of that – and being in PR I would think that some of the credit for people caring so much should go to the media. They’ve done a pretty good job with this, from what I’ve seen. Even being compassionate and letting their emotions become part of the story. I’ve never really seen that before. Even with September 11 and the Boxing Day Tsunami – which are probably the two most significant events to take place in this era of massive media coverage – were treated with a sense of cold distance. We’ve got reporters breaking down in tears left right and centre here. Because it’s terrible.

      I hope too that these images make arsonists stop and think just a little more. Rather than acting as some sort of twisted incentive to start fires.

      I can’t help but think that the premeditated approach of waiting until extreme fire danger conditions would suggest that the incentive scenario is the most likely.

  2. I work in marketing/PR too remember!

    I think I have an intense dislike of the flurry of reporters who descend on the area like vultures a la Naomi Robson in Beaconsfield, then sticking a camera in the face of someone who has just returned to the shell of their house or the obviously hysterical/grieving (best example was taking some poor woman up in a helicopter to see if her house was gone and filming the result – truly awful).

    Or with the Brisbane storms last November – picking the most devastated street in The Gap and reporting exclusively from there about there, ignoring the rest of the 10 or so suburbs which were also damaged – leading to the focus of all the SES relief (tarps etc) and insurance assessment on The Gap (maybe this is why we, like so many other houses in our street and suburbs, are still waiting for engineers etc to come and tell us if our houses are safe).

    I am as bad as the next person with this – having mastered the art of news-watching (it is possible to watch non-stop current affairs with the same information over and over from 5-11 pretty much any night of the week on the free-to-air channels alone), but there is reportage and there is preying on the vulnerable. Not sure where the lines are on this one.

    1. Yeah, I wasn’t really disputing your points – just suggesting that while people are eager to label the media as incarnated devils preying on the weak, the coverage can actually be of real value to the people in question.

  3. I watched three different channels for the news tonight and would say the ‘preying’ issue is definitely more of an issue for the commercials – channel 7 in particular. But I certainly wouldn’t deny the role of the reporting in the charitable donations we are seeing.

    Just more I am noticing more and more for all channels the use of news to sell another program (Australian Story or 4 Corners for the ABC, Today Tonight for Channel 7 etc). And also a marked increase in emotional/biased reportage not straight up fact (ie Channel 10’s ‘How Malcolm Turnbull doesn’t want you to get your promised handout’ headline last week).

    Just a trend towards sensationalism and dare I say tabloid journalism.

    1. Yeah, I’m certainly not arguing for blanket coverage of an event, nor am I suggesting the the fourth estate is blameless on this matter.

      The media has an important role to play in culture and democracy – and in the main the commercial imperative of ratings is getting in the way.

      The success of A Current Affair and Today Tonight is indicative of the average intellect of the Australian news viewer.

      One of the principles of news writing is to aim your content at the intellect of a ten year old. A lot of our news coverage seems to see that as a maximum not a minimum.

      Interestingly one of the links in my shared links post today is about Obama’s first media conference – and a comparison of the reading level of his answers and Bush’s.

  4. I have been particulary annoyed at the current disaster coverage.. . . I have wondered what the victims of such a disaster feel having media so invasively filming and seeking their stories of misery. Even their refuge centres are not safe from the seemingly relentless coverage and it seems every media outlet have set up camp in the ‘worse hit areas’ in order to film the most tragic stories possible. I found the sign asking sightseers to go home, being shown by the media to be strangely ironical. It seems like the media has attempted to create this image that they are part of the community that has lost so much, they have the right to see the disaster areas, film the places where people have died and in doing so have no problems showing this sign, meanwhile being (in my mind) worse than many sightseers by their intrusive coverage. Mind you, listening to ABC radio, I feel that many people feel like it is an outlet for them to tell there stories and share their grief . . . but I got annoyed when the interviewer just keep asking about the worse things he had seen etc – a blatant attempt for dramatisation.

    What I have found interesting though, is my reaction. I was intensely interested when the initial disaster came out, wanting to know the details, seeking footage of disaster and the stories of near death, I would be flicking through the channels and mostly looking at the internet about the disaster. But as the week has progressed, (in fact almost overnight) – I have resented seeing the reporters presenting from the fire affected areas, outside some poor persons house – perhaps where someone died. I change channel and look for something else to watch and I wonder what happened to change my attitude so profoundly.

    1. I think there’s a time where we all reach “saturation point” when it comes to disasters. When we can’t bear to see the same terrible images over and over again, when we become desensitised to the plight of the victims and when we stop caring.

      I think this will be demonstrated best by the Red Cross appeal’s daily takings. As we move further past the “ground zero” of this event – takings will drop. Unless there is something new and spectacularly tragic that comes to life it’s going to be hard to shake people out of this post traumatic apathy that sets in.

      Defending the media for a minute though – outside of commercial imperatives which are a real issue for objective news coverage – the media does have a role to play as “part of the community”. I think, while invasive at times, it’s important that they be in the disaster shelters presenting what’s happening for friends and families of the victims outside of the affected areas.

      The media has a role to play as the “social conscience”, a radar for public thought and a gatekeeper keeping government and corporations accountable. The pressure these images put on the government to act in a timely manner is probably secondary to the pressure they put on the corporate world – banks and insurance companies – who often do their best not to deliver the services they “promise” to customers. Any insurance company that delays payment to fire victims or any bank that forecloses a loan on a burned out home – will feel massive consequences in terms of public backlash – and they have no wiggle room because of the intense coverage.

      I flicked on to Sunrise this morning just before leaving for work – and there was Kochie praising Allianze Insurance (or Alliance? Is that a brand) for handing out $5000, no questions asked, to fire victims to tide them over. That will put pressure on other companies to do the same – and this wouldn’t happen without the blanket coverage.

  5. Defending the media for a minute though – outside of commercial imperatives which are a real issue for objective news coverage – the media does have a role to play as “part of the community”. I think, while invasive at times, it’s important that they be in the disaster shelters presenting what’s happening for friends and families of the victims outside of the affected areas.

    The issue being that in a couple of days or a week, the media will move on to something new and exciting and these people will be dropped like the proverbial. Just like the floods up north were and the storms and so on.

    1. That’s the reality of the news cycle and the point I was trying to make regarding the relationship between the rate of giving to the Red Cross and the amount of media coverage the story is getting.

      It’s in the best interest of the victims for the media coverage to continue. Maybe. That could also put off any onset of post traumatic stress because it prolongs the trauma… could that be a good thing?

  6. Maybe, but what of all the other causes that get little to no media attention? If everyone gives all they have to give to this appeal because it is in their face and they have been moved by the emotional news reports, then will they have anything to give charities that help homeless people, domestic violence victims, people made redundant due to the current economic climate. Should the media put more emphasis on the disparity between Aboriginal living standards and the rest of Australia, or on services helping those affected by addiction?
    I don’t mean to be callous, and I think it is great that so many people are willing to give so much, but this is not the only incident that has happened in Australia this week that has caused death, loss and suffering. This one is just the most attention grabbing, because it is on a big scale.

    1. I agree that media coverage of other situations – not just in Australia but globally (Sudan for example) – is pretty poor. I would think other charity giving is a regular budgeted item for people who are concerned about a particular issue. They all also have their own recruitment drives. Domestic violence and homelessness have all been targets of K-Rudd funded marketing blitzes this year.

      Rule one of news is that it has to have a “public interest” element. I think the fact that the bushfires are on such a massive scale sets them apart from the run of the mill common assault case. If there were 300 people killed in domestic violence over one weekend I’m sure you’d get the same coverage. I’m told that 300 is about the number of bodies currently collected and the disparity in reporting is based on collected v processed numbers.

      Aboriginal living standards and all those issues are matters for Government funding. They’re part of the responsibility of the government for its people. I agree the media should be covering these situations more to encourage government funding. But I think to compare these issues with the bushfire lacks perspective.

      I think whole towns being wiped off the map is a situation that should encourage a generous response from the Australian. I think that’s entirely appropriate.

      It’s the only incident that has caused destruction and death on the scale it has, in the timespan it has, ever in Australian history. Except perhaps for some not fully documented days of genocide in the early years of white occupation.

  7. It’s the only incident that has caused destruction and death on the scale it has, in the timespan it has, ever in Australian history. Except perhaps for some not fully documented days of genocide in the early years of white occupation.

    Don’t think this is a correct statement at all.
    For example, while the Ash Wednesday fires in 1983 didn’t kill as many people, it destroyed far more homes (more to the tune of 7000) than this fire. Growing up in Adelaide in the years following this you would hear similar stories of horror and fear about those fires as you are hearing now. There are also the Bali bombings, a massive plague outbreak in 1901 in Sydney, various wars etc etc, not to mention yes, the genocide that was commonplace in the early years of white settlement (ie a ‘standard’ retalliation for a dozen white deaths was the massacre of 60 aboriginal people [found this story at work the other day – the only reason the total wasn’t higher was the ran out of ammunition for goodness’ sake]).

    But I will actually research this properly and get back to you if you want to argue :P…

    1. Yeah Ash Wednesday destroyed more homes. Note I said “destruction and death”, I guess the emphasis for me was on the destruction of life rather than the destruction of property. I don’t really care that people have lost things that can be replaced. I care that families have been ripped apart by this.

      Bali is irrelevant considering I said “in Australia” – as are the wars, unless you count the Eureka Stockade. Perhaps I wasn’t clear enough about the in Australia bit. I thought the “in Australian history” was explicit enough. I am making the distinction between this, an incident on our soil – and other instances where Australian lives have been lost – because we can’t distance ourselves from it in the same way.

      Also, I guess I see a difference between this and wars because in wars there’s always the expectation of casualties and damage to property. The scale of these fires seemed unexpected. Particularly given that some of them were the result of arson.

  8. I’m not necessarily saying I agree with the comment I put up, it’s just something I’m thinking about. When I go shopping and see everyone second shop with a bushfire appeal collection bucket, it just gets me thinking a little about it.

    I know that it this is a big story, and I probably can’t even grasp the enormity of the situation. I made my comment because I’m trying to put it into perspective. Does this story deserve the ongoing attention it is getting, more so than Aboriginal welfare and domestic violence deserve regular media attention? maybe, maybe not. I’m just trying to get my head around it myself.

    The thing is, I don’t trust the media, and some sources less than others. When I watch stories that I do know something about, and I’m pretty sure they’ve got it wrong, it makes me less likely to trust other stories.

    1. Yeah, I understand where you’re coming from. Being someone paid to manipulate the media gives me a pretty good idea how flexible the media’s coverage of any story can be. Having said that, I also don’t think the media, as a general rule, is “untrustworthy”. I think getting any story from just one source or point of view is dangerous both as a journalist and as a viewer. I am not convinced there’s “right” or “wrong” on many stories in the news. That’s a very post modern thing to say. But take politics for example – how do you report on something like the stimulus package when it’s a much more complex economic argument than media space allows, and more than anyone actually wants. The viewer wants their news watered down into consumable chunks. They want sensationalism. They want soundbites. That’s a broad generalisation – but it’s born out in ratings and the standard of coverage of news stories.

      The other limitation to consider when it comes to TV coverage is pictures. We find a lot of our more newsworthy stories are not suitable for television – because what do you show on the screen when you’re talking about power stations. There’s only so many generic power pictures out there.

      When it comes to domestic violence there’s no footage – except from government produced ads. When it comes to Aboriginal welfare there are a few issues. While most Aboriginals are generally accepting of photography/filming now there are still some who aren’t – in the more remote communities. Which is a consideration. But there are plenty of pictures available of the terrible plight of our indigenous people – and I would say the issue has never received more coverage than it has in the 12 months post apology (the anniversary was today I believe) – and post Howard government intervention. There’s just nothing really new happening on that front now – unlike the fires. And “now” is key for news.

      Nowness and public interest. Those are the ingredients. Both are still there for the bushfires – and will be until all the fires are out, and these caught arsonists have been found guilty.

  9. Not clear enough I’m afraid. In Australian history could well mean an occurrence in our history – and I would consider Bali especially part of our history (and despite it being on foreign soil I think it hit home far more than say the London bombings or 9/11 did, maybe because we consider Bali ‘our place’ somewhat as well. Also, I could point out that many lives can be destroyed by the destruction part as much as the death part – I think a lot of people didn’t recover from losing everything in Ash Wednesday etc.

    It is all semantics anyway – this is going to be the biggest and largest even until the next big thing. Madonna King wrote a good article on this issue today in CM.

  10. Oh, and I wanted to add to my list of destruction:
    Cyclone Tracey would probably be similar in levels of destruction etc.

    But I guess the whole point I was making is it shouldn’t be a competition – the worst, the biggest, the most horrific. Any tragedy is a tragedy no matter if one person or hundreds are killed – for their families and friends it is huge. So the whole ‘beat-up’ and bigger than blah methods of the media I find offensive.

    1. Yeah, I agree (with some qualifications) with the general sentiment of your objections.
      I do think the bushfires are the biggest thing to hit Australia since the advent of a truly global, instantaneous media. Beaconsfield was a similar media feeding frenzy but on a much smaller scale.
      I think we’ve learned a bit about how the Australian media should handle these things – and learned a bit about how they shouldn’t.
      There are plenty of examples of one-upmanship where the media are struggling to outdo each other with their coverage. This is unhealthy. I do like my suggestion of “pooled coverage” of disasters where there’s a dedicated digital channel and normal programming is able to go on outside of that channel. I think it’s workable.

  11. Some time ago there was a tsunami warning issued for the east coast of Australia. I sat glued to my television, because it was very very funny: one of the breakfast shows had extended coverage, talking to various experts and what-not, just waiting for something to happen. Nothing happened, and suddenly programming returned to normal, without much being said.

    I probably shouldn’t laugh, really.

    Maybe a dedicated ‘news’ channel might be better, because you could assume that there would always be news, but not always specifically disaster related news. Though, there could be things happening all over the world that could be shown, but it could be a little morbid.

    Just a point, to in regards to the scale of this disaster, is that the Black Friday fires in the 1930s were possibly as bad, but Victoria was somewhat less populated at the time. But also in relation to these fires, I think the media has a lot to answer for in the public response to the trial of the alleged arsonist. I feel sorry for the man, in a way, for the punishment of the public that he has to endure. I don’t think he should go unpunished, but I suspect a lot of people out there think that he set the bush on fire to intentionally destroy lives (which he may well have done, but then again, he may not have).

  12. I have no sympathy whatsoever for the arsonist. Setting fires on a day where “extreme” conditions are forecast in my mind amounts to callous premeditation.

    He deserves all he gets – both in the form of the justice system and public vitriol. He’ll no doubt be found to be mentally ill or insane – but you’d have to be mentally ill or insane to be doing this sort of thing.

    21 families have lost someone as a direct result of his little fire setting jaunt. I think it’s natural that there be a public outpouring of anger and emotion at someone responsible for such a reprehensible action.

    In terms of scale – sure, the fires may have been as big as the Black Friday fires – but again – my comments regarding scale were to do with loss of life and damage to property. Based on my quick research on Cyclone Tracy today the damage to property was probably more intense in the cyclone – but I’m yet to see a final dollar value on damages to commercial property. Wikipedia has the value of damage caused by Cyclone Tracy – in today’s money – at $US5 billion. 71 people died. That’s nothing to scoff at – but all the journos I’ve spoken to this week say the final figure is going to be over 300 dead from these fires.

    Putting it into scale – the percentage of the population killed by the fires (calculated with 300 victims and a population of 21 million) is 0.001%. The percentage of the American population killed on September 11 was almost identical. Based on the US population figure from 2000 (281,421,906) and 2,998 dead.

  13. I guess you’ve also got to consider this arsonist partly responsible for other deaths in that his fires took firefighting resources away from other fires to concentrate on his.

  14. I don’t want to try and shift any blame from the arsonist: what he did was horrible and deserves punishment.
    I’m more concerned about the public taking matters into their own hands whether they have the full story or not, if that makes sense. There is a reason why they had a supresssion order in place in Victoria, and I wonder if the man’s family is wishing it was still in place.
    Maybe he deserves everything he gets from the public, but I think the mental state of someone who lights fires is not the same as that of a normal person, and many people who have been simply caught up in the emotion of the news reports can’t comprehend that anyone would think any different to themselves, if that makes sense. Maybe the public retribution is absolutely warranted, but his identity made public isn’t. I’m not sure. I’ll need to think some more on this now.

  15. Part of having an “open and transparent” court system is having open and transparent court proceedings – the fact that he was afforded a suppression order for the length of time he was is a bonus.

    I don’t think he deserves special treatment on account of his crimes being particularly heinous.

  16. There is fair and transparent and there is innocent until proven guilty. He has been charged but not been found guilty.

    If he isn’t – what then? He and his family will still probably be vilified and/or attacked.

    There is also a risk when emotions are running this high of vigilantism – even if in your opinion ‘he deserves it’ that is not how this country’s legal system works, not to mention that then someone else ends up in prison.

  17. There’s “innocence” and there’s “innocent until proven guilty”… and there’s “charged”.

    There aren’t a huge number of cases of this type, with this profile where the person charged is not guilty.

    The police have to be pretty careful about that because if they’re wrong they’ll suffer as big a backlash as the family.

    Again, my sympathies on this case lie with the victims. I think they need to be assured that justice is being pursued.

    This is why I think the criminal justice system is about punishment not rehabilitation.

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