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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.

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