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The Media and Disasters: Building a Better Understanding

Brian Wenham

It is well-documented elsewhere in these papers that new technological advances in communications offer the prospect of considerable improvement, both in the anticipation of sudden-onset disaster, and in dealing with after-effects once disaster occurs. This is unreservedly good news. Contrary to general opinion, the news media are not hostile to good news per se, but they often do not recognize it when they see it. In part, the problem is that, being for the most part generalists and firemen, reporters lack the time to become fully conversant with the inwardnesses of any specialty or discipline. In part, too, we should remember that the media and disaster-mitigation agencies are in essentially different businesses. The media "tell how bad things are" while the disaster-relief agencies "make things better." Although fundamental interests may increasingly overlap, basic drives will not.

This paper points up a half dozen ways in which the news media might be encouraged and better informed about the activities of disaster-mitigation agencies, so that they might become more aware of general susceptibilities they could offend, and learn more about how they could be of positive help. Starting with the technical detail amply given elsewhere, the paper hazards some guesses about how a more productive relationship might unfold.

The Media and Distress

The media are naturally drawn to disaster, large-scale or small, on plain grounds of human interest, sometimes compassionate but often mawkish. The fascination antedates both television and radio; press and press photographers got there even earlier. The interest is unlikely to diminish, so relief agencies must work with it, not against it, in the full knowledge that some media intrusion will be clumsy and distasteful.

The development of news satellites has speeded up the pace at which distressful news is spread, particularly for television. With or without official blessing, cameras are likely to be on the scene within hours rather than days. News agencies and satellite news services will further accelerate that dissemination.

Remote space-imaging, when it becomes more generally available, will add a further turn to the wheel. We may expect to see an increased impact of distressful news communicated even before a frontline cameraman reaches the scene.

This development will further ruffle the feathers of those in authority who may hope for a more orderly news-flow. Already, many governments find that their old techniques--call the president of the network, call the director-general of the BBC--have less effect as the number of networks increases. Even if authorities can establish control in their own jurisdictions, they must increasingly contend with alien pictures from beyond their borders. Satellite television is no respecter of national frontiers.

Government's best chance of taking command of the information flow, therefore, is to make itself the swiftest and most accurate provider of information. This may well turn out to be in its own best interests. When a reactor malfunctions, or a quake brings down buildings, what the government has to say will certainly be listened to.

The public will, however, less and less automatically take statements from authority on trust. They will use other information sources as a check. So, again, the best policy for authorities is that of clean information flow. It can be argued that the Soviet Union, admittedly after delay and with its hand forced by external evidence, was, at the end of the day, more forthcoming than previous experience would have indicated likely.

A greater inhibition may occur with commercial interests. Governments have a natural interest in cleaning up the mess on their own territory. International corporations, on the other hand, may prefer to slow down the information flow until such time as the head office can react. These pressures could be seen at work at Bhopal. Some efforts should be made to ensure that big business does not, in its own narrow interests, lag behind governments, relief agencies, and the media.

It is probably premature to conclude that, as media outlets proliferate, the numbers of media-observers present in any disaster area will inevitably increase, with all the added danger of muddle and obstruction. Economic pressures point the other way. Even the major U.S. networks, traditionally the biggest spenders, are limiting their worldwide activities. If this trend continues, one consequence will be an increased sharing of pictures from remote news scenes.

Drawbacks then arise. Audiences the world over put more trust in the reporting of their own nationals than in foreign journalists' work. Smaller countries already resent the fact that their distresses are reported in other people s terms. Outsiders are often thought both alarmist and parasitical.

There are, too, particular difficulties in becoming dependent on the visual codes of others. British viewers felt an additional jolt from television reports of the Challenger disaster, because the live U.S. pictures they watched concentrated more on the faces of friends and relatives than British television would have done. An increased propensity on the part of all networks to resort to live pictures simply redoubles this "added-shock" factor. (The discrepancy in reporting styles also appears in the reverse. U.S. viewers probably would have been less disturbed by the 1984 BBC report on the Ethiopian famine had it come from one of their own reporters, in traditional fast-cut U.S. style. By contrast, the more lingering practice of the British reporter left a deeper impression.)

There is a danger, though, of a "tragedy glut." Television, by its nature, homes in on what can be visually displayed. Distress, whether it be large-scale disaster or the daily recital of fightings and killings home and abroad, probably plays a larger part in news reports now than 20 years ago. The increased availability of "hot" pictures worldwide has to a great extent driven the news motor.

The only long-term corrective is for journalists to offer a steadying background of understanding that goes beyond the immediate event. Sudden-onset disasters lend themselves to this more elevated approach, whereas murder and slaughter do not. In sudden disasters, many of which are no one's fault, there are heroes to be found alongside the afflicted. In short, there are positive stories to be told.

The recommendations that follow this brief survey are designed to play to the positive side of media interest. They assume, however, a greater degree of media ignorance than disaster-mitigation agencies might think reasonable. But it must be remembered that, even if those in attendance at, say, Bhopal develop a good understanding of what is being attempted and why, the next crew at a massive chemical spill may be novices at disasters. The proliferation of media outlets in recent years has not been accompanied by an explosion in guidance or training. Better, therefore, to assume that you are preaching to the unconverted.

Yet, looming over all is a shared interest in the mechanics of the operation. The media and the disaster-relief agencies share the same communication needs--to get messages out and sensible feedback in return. They have, as is demonstrated over and again in other papers, the potential for mutual help in the sensible sharing of facilities. The first step toward a mutually beneficial relationship should be to clarify the prospects for that sharing.

Action Points

1. Educate the press and the public about what can be done today in disaster mitigation and relief management by producing a series of high-quality television programs designed for international dissemination and describing the state of the art.

Production of a set of three television programs should be financed on the condition that they become available for international distribution without charge for rights (though there would, of course, be taping and postage fees). The three programs would detail the state of the art, covering these areas:

This scheme would not be excessively costly. Attempting the same through radio would cost far less, but be also of far less use in any society where television is established. Supportive radio work could, however, be considered, in a second phase, for countries where radio is dominant.

It would also be possible at considerable cost to work up a videodisc, incorporating all the latest information techniques, and capable of being addressed by any and all users, no matter how little qualified. However, given the present limited distribution of videodisc technology, such an effort would not be easy to justify at this time. A moment for it may, however, come later, before the next century. Indeed, anyone projecting forward might profitably toy with the idea of a Twenty-first Century Hazard Disc.

2. Reemphasize the role of television meteorologists as the natural conduit for higher-grade information in the disaster-mitigation field.

As is indicated elsewhere is these papers, television weather broadcasts are the natural conduit for information on the anticipation and mitigation of hazards. Weather broadcasters are (or should be) interested in what new technology can reveal, are usually trusted by their publics, and have guaranteed, regular access to air time, which, predictably, will increase over the years with the sophistication of their reporting.

If a sensible coordination point can be identified, there would be value in offering a continuously updated package of available information to television and radio stations, stressing what can be shown and told about the development of hazardous conditions, and steps to be taken to limit possible damage. Any coordinating point would necessarily concentrate on the global picture, but that too has its program interest. Viewers and listeners have a natural curiosity about the ill-fortune of others, and this can be properly addressed.

The information package should be kept succinct and initially restricted to text, with information on people to call for more details. The enhanced information will be of most use if it is localized. As with the series of three programs proposed above, it would be valuable to build in some feedback incentive. Broadcasters who avail themselves of the latest technology should be encouraged by an appropriate discount mechanism to feed their work back to the coordinating point, which might wish to assess it, and pass on lessons learned to others.

3. Disseminate, more widely, the fruits of space imagery, pressing to make it economically feasible.

This is a particular area of interest and delicacy. An effort should be made to separate "humane" uses of such data from other strategic and intelligence uses.

Costs are so high at the moment that they deflect many potential users. There is a danger that this new satellite imaging will be only a "rich man's tool," unless financial lubricant can be applied on an international level to make the information affordable to those who need it most.

The raw images would need to be accompanied by assistance in interpretation. Media using the new remote-sensing data need to know where to consult to make sure they have the right interpretation.

The most natural conduit on the day-to-day basis remains the weather broadcasters, but the greater subtleties also need to be conveyed to a higher editorial level. It would be all too easy to suggest an ongoing seminar, which would be enjoyable enough for those asked to attend, but highly expensive. However, a newsletter directed to news directors, editors and the like might serve better.

4. Develop a basic code promoting cooperation among the media and disaster-mitigation agencies.

Here again, the first concern should be with the broadcast media, whose involvement is more intricate, and with whom there exists a greater potential for cooperative spinoff. Questions arise before, during, and after.

Significant networks, i.e., those heavily engaged in international operations, and by definition heavy users of advanced technology, should be told what it is that disaster-relief agencies might expect from them by means of an occasional information letter. Communication more than once a quarter would probably be counter- productive; the news-assignment desks probably would not read it. The information letter should seek to take a "newsy" approach, emphasizing what has recently gone wrong, or right, in a particular situation.

The information letter should be on a confidential basis, i.e., not designed to encourage one broadcaster to score points off another. There can be no guarantees, of course not every broadcaster plays by the rules. But the thought that the finger of reproach might next time settle on you is a powerful deterrent. Therefore, the more candid and argumentative the information letter is the better.

During the disaster-relief process, there can be no certainty about the degree of coordination available on the ground in the initial stages. Even when elements of coordination do emerge, they are unlikely to be the same from one situation to another. Even so, some thought should be given to elementary standardization of procedures. This is a matter for the disaster-mitigation agencies to address, and see what improvement they might want to offer, and have announced in advanced.

Once the immediate crisis is contained as fully as possible, the media will tend to move on to other things, sometimes leaving a legacy of bitterness. There is advantage in trying to follow up on any particular malfunctions where some feeling of poor behavior persists. Some of this follow-up may find expression in the information letter for editors, suggested above. Once experience has become extensive, however, a plain and simple "code of practice" could be drawn up, possibly through the LifeNet mechanism. It should be very basic, couched in supportive, non-threatening language, and capable of wide dissemination, especially on the sites of disasters. The underlying thought is that it would be of use primarily for "first-timers"--journalists new to high-hazard situations and unable to be properly briefed before being dispatched to cover the bad news.

5. Consider establishing a technological "information-exchange" mechanism, so that those centrally involved--relief agencies and major networks--can constantly cross-check the significance and usefulness of what is available, and of what is around the next corner.

The media, in the natural course of events, will be more actively engaged in the use of satellite technology than the disaster-mitigation agencies. Although their business obliges them to move on, there will be journalists and broadcasters of more reflective persuasion who have positive thoughts to contribute. Whom do they address?

It would be useful, therefore, to build into the disaster- mitigation process some known point of contact where such comments from the press can be lodged and debated. Whether this activity can or should be lumped in with the detailed practicalities of day-to-day developments is for others to judge. However, if the attention is to be less concerned with the heat of the moment, and more with the long-term, it may best to consider a distinct line of communication.

This would allow a concentration less on what we know to be possible, if we could afford it, and more on what might be possible one or two generations of development down the line. Broadcasters will, in any case, be making their own speculations across the whole field on their interests; it can do no harm, and might bear fruit, if the disaster-mitigation agencies regularly plugged into that speculative work.

6. Improve the supply of information about the nature of and remedies for "high-tech" hazards, such as nuclear reactor malfunctions and toxic waste contamination.

The media and the public are more at ease with what they consider natural hazards--earthquakes, hurricanes, typhoons--than with hazards of more recent invention. The first category of hazard comes, as it were, "value-free" and the flow of information is accordingly reasonably pure. This is not the case with the second category, where the twin dangers of underplaying or exaggerating the seriousness of an accident are exacerbated by high levels of ignorance and uncertainty.

Commercial pressures accentuate the problem. Organizations involved in the nuclear power and hazardous chemical businesses rightly fear the limits of public tolerance. Therefore, from Windscale, through Three Mile Island, and on to Bhopal and Chernobyl, there is a history of impure information. (In the case of Windscale, detail about the degree of hazard is only now emerging through released British Cabinet papers.) Proprietors of these man-made hazards frequently complain that the media have "got it wrong," whereas, in truth, the media lack adequate information to judge.

The media shares with the hazard-mitigation community an interest in improving the quality and reliability of information available. The matter does not, however, rest with them and there would be a danger in excessive stridency; charges of excessive leanings toward Green Party-like policies would easily follow. Nevertheless, it is important to bring pressure to bear, making the point that, in the long term a realistic appreciation of hazard, of its true effects, and of what should be done to cope with it, is in the interests of all, including those commercially involved.

On Understanding Editors

This paper says little about the problems of editors, although it does remark on the difficulties governments face in steering an information flow. Editors' interests are plainer, more straightforward, essentially to be in a position to report cleanly wherever their news instincts direct them.

Beyond their home countries, editors will continue to encounter operational difficulties. Unfriendly officials may slow them down or prevent them from working altogether, as in Israel, South Africa, and, until recently, virtually everywhere in the communist world.

It would be of some considerable benefit if a treaty, or international understanding, could cut through most of these inhibitions, and ensure easy and uncluttered access to disaster areas. Given the contribution that the media, once present, can themselves make to mitigation, there should be little theoretical objection to such a development.

However, even in conditions of maximum goodwill, a practical problem of definition arises. Who declares the disaster to be a disaster? Governments may still be slow to admit to the severity of the problem and to open access for the media. (Some will continue to take a restrictive view, especially if their experience indicates that an excessive media presence gets in the way of remedial work.)

The media, therefore, must earn the authorities' trust. Even when their coverage is well-intended, it may serve to confuse. The Red Cross speaks convincingly of the "foreshortening" effect of much news reporting, and of the fundamental need for reliable information on which they can plan. The impression conveyed is that the media's inevitable compression, concentration, and slant is somehow designed to distort.

Although there are abundant examples of crass and crude reporting that wholly inflate the significance of any given event, editors would, by and large, intend that their prime interest continues to be in pure and accurate information. All media carry with them a potential for built-in bias--whether still picture, press story, feature article, radio documentary, or television report--and therefore argument can go on for hours about which gives most or least of "the truth." But all media can express a version of truth in their own particular ways. Some may be less easily understood than others, and therefore less welcome--even resented.

Resentment, where it arises, should be brought out into the open and debated. Too many of those who believe themselves misrepresented, misunderstood and, on occasion, traduced by modern media, lapse into a state of dumb anger. There is little profit in that. Information flow should be a two-way business. If those reported on believe the reporters could do a better job, then they are free to say so, and should. At the very least greater clarity should result.

A British Cabinet minister, now mercifully dropped from the Thatcher government, once responded to an invitation to debate the intricacies of his particular responsibility--education--over a 90-minute program with the words: "But you television people don't deal with serious issues, do you?" (The minister, of course, owned no set.)

Television, or radio, or the print media, do not deal with serious issues as often as others might feel desirable, but in some way, at some level, some time, they usually do. Better instincts can be appealed to and, where the cause is good and relatively free of special pleading, the response can even be surprising in its clarity and vigor.