Outside Looking In

Disaster coverage needs to be more nuanced, with a specific focus on the after-effects, experts say

A hurricane is approaching and there is only 10 hours before it hits landfall. People are frantic, wondering what resources they need, how they can escape, and what’s being done to mitigate any damage. In the midst of the disaster, media organizations flock to the scene, striving to find answers to the public’s pertinent questions, while reporting on the hurricane’s magnitude. But after the acute event, coverage dissipates and media attention is lost, leaving many communities to rebuild on their own. While there is considerable and thorough coverage on disasters as they happen, aftermath and recovery are rarely and poorly reported on. Experts say this is one of the biggest discrepancies in disaster coverage, and that this type of reporting is essential for communities in recovery.

“Most disasters or crises don’t end when the media coverage ends,” says Elizabeth Petrun Sayers, a scientist at the RAND Corporation—a non-profit public policy research organization. Petrun Sayers’s research partially focuses on natural hazards and disaster recovery. It’s important for media organizations to commit resources to following an affected location’s recovery, she adds.

“Holding relief efforts accountable is very, very important,” Rachel Pulfer, the executive director of Journalists for Human Rights, says. Currently, stories tracking disaster relief efforts are grossly under-reported. There is also not enough of a focus on number crunching and understanding the business behind disaster relief aid. Journalists should focus on investigating how funds are appropriated for disaster preparedness and recovery, says Irwin Redlener, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness in the United States. “Where is…[the money]? Is it spent? Not spent? Is it spent inappropriately?” he says, referencing the $48 billion (U.S.) that was allocated to the recovery from Hurricane Sandy by the U.S. federal government in 2012. “That’s a really, really important story that journalists should be covering.”

When places are in recovery from disasters, media attention has a significant influence on whether affected locations remain on the radar for donor agencies, Pulfer says. Oftentimes, however, media companies do not cover disasters as holistically as they should. “Media coverage tends to emphasize the suffering of people who are perceived to be geographically or politically closer to us,” says Karin Wahl-Jorgensen, a co-author of Disasters and the Media and a journalism professor at Cardiff University in Wales, United Kingdom. “Those decisions around news coverage are very shaped by the perception that some victims in some areas are more worthy of our attention than others.”

Wahl-Jorgensen cites the 2017 hurricane season, saying critics pointed out that while Hurricane Harvey happened, there was also a massive monsoon that devastated India and Bangladesh, which received much less attention. The monsoon caused some of the worst flooding in South Asia in years. Similarly, Pulfer says, there was a deadly mudslide in Sierra Leone in August 2017 that was barely covered. Journalists—and editors—should be mindful of the holistic story as it breaks, and focus on where the real disaster spots are within the scope of available resources, she says.

But when western media companies cover natural disasters in foreign countries, there are sometimes problematic tropes and misrepresentation issues. During the 2010 Haiti earthquake, for instance, the spotlight was often on the pitfalls of ‘parachute’ journalism. In a Seattle Times column, Manoucheka Celeste—a former journalist and media scholar from Haiti—wrote about the troubling misrepresentations of the country following the earthquake. Haiti was stereotyped as poor and helpless by the western media, Celeste wrote. Victims were robbed of their dignity, with graphic images of the deceased and injured printed or broadcast with little empathy.

Rachel Pulfer from Journalists for Human Rights discusses the importance of the local fixer network at the RRJ‘s fall 2017 conference on disaster reporting. (Sherry Li/RRJ)

“Approach people as humans,” says Yveline Alexis, an assistant professor of Africana studies at Oberlin College and Conservatory in the United States. “I’m not going to take a picture of a white child in Kansas or a white child in Texas after a disaster without asking their parents’ permission. Unfortunately, we see that happening in Haiti all the time.”

In order to avoid stereotyping certain communities, journalists should do as much research as possible before entering areas affected by disaster. In the case of the Haiti earthquake, Alexis says giving agency to the people affected was important, as opposed to promoting myths of foreign saviours—people who come from western countries to “save” developing nations*. For journalists to portray affected communities accurately, it is important for them to interact with them directly. “Local journalists represent potentially the most valuable source of information because they feel like it’s been their job to report on this society with balance and accuracy before this disaster hit,” Pulfer adds. If journalists do not go directly to local sources in Haiti, they should speak to people within the Haitian diaspora, and be fluent in some of the local languages, Alexis says, adding, “I want that level of competency.” Wahl-Jorgensen says what’s missing from disaster coverage is cultivating compassion for victims in places that are perceived as distant or different than western society.

While journalists can misrepresent foreign communities, it is also possible for them to create false perceptions regarding the magnitude and extent of disasters. The media should not allow individual stories and anecdotes to overwhelm the big picture, Redlener says, because this can create false impressions. “People need to be honest about, is this is actually representing what is going on in the community?” he adds.

Disasters also create the possibility of rumours and hoaxes, Petrun Sayers says, adding that when there are floods, photos are sometimes published of sharks swimming in the water. This happened in Canada in 2012, when a fabricated photo circulated on social media purporting that sharks were swimming in floodwater at Toronto’s Union Station. Journalists should know how to respond to these types of rumours, when to address them, and when not to, Petrun Sayers says.

The real challenge for journalists is covering what happens in between dramatic stories of major disasters, Redlener says, adding there is a loss of media attention at points, which is unhealthy. The narratives used to describe disasters can have large implications regarding how communities see themselves and how outsiders view them, Petrun Sayers says. While isolated incidents may be interesting or newsworthy, over-sensationalizing this coverage is not necessarily beneficial to the affected communities in the long-term, she adds. “[There’s] a lot of chaos,” Pulfer says. “Try to put that into an illustrative example that we can see in stories that are backed up by research and statistics, that then becomes an authoritative and credible piece of coverage.”


*: The term “developing nations” has been loosely used to define places where access to resources is limited. The RRJ is aware the term is restricting and does not reflect countries’ diverse characteristics. It is employed in this context for clarity from a media criticism perspective.