Sensitive reporting in a time of catastrophe


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 The Himalayan quake is a multilayered story. It required a range of expertise to capture the various dimensions of the tragedy

A touchstone that determines whether a newspaper is capable of speaking the truth to power is the way it covers its own fraternity and its follies. The media, which is generally vocal in holding others accountable, has a tendency to withhold its punches when it comes to its own. Whenever a newspaper takes an ethical stand on the role of its peers, pointing out the lapses and using the same yardstick it uses to measure the performance of other players — such as bureaucrats, diplomats, politicians, corporate leaders and legal experts — it enhances the credibility of the public discourse.

In this context, the role of The Hindu in calling a spade a spade in the aftermath of general revulsion by Nepali citizens over the behaviour of Indian television journalists covering the post-earthquake relief operation deserves a detailed study. The report, “Indian media jingoism was trigger for backlash in Nepal”, documented a particular occasion where a TV journalist was heard rudely telling the officer that it was his right to go along in the Indian Army’s chopper: “My countrymen are taking part in the rescue operations and it is my duty to go along with them.” Jayant Sriram’s report rightly pointed out that this led to a situation “in which TV journalists inadvertently became embedded reporters”.

Basharat Peer, The Hindu’s Roving Editor, after filing an exhaustive ‘Sunday Anchor’ piece, had to write about the role of the journalists in his lead essay, “When messengers shoot the message” where he recorded the stoic dignity with which the Nepalese handled their tragedy and the insensitive intrusions by the media. And on May 8, 2015, the newspaper carried an editorial, “Mikes in the time of disaster”, in which it unequivocally reminded fellow journalists from the television stream to remember that “in a disaster, relief must take primacy over media privilege. Indeed, it must be seen to take precedence. A disaster of this magnitude leaves in its wake traumatised families that have lost everything in one fell swoop. Ethical journalism must place humanity above professional urgency.”

 

The Hindu’s coverage

The Himalayan quake is a multilayered story. It required a range of expertise to capture the various dimensions of the tragedy. This newspaper, in its ‘Science and Technology’ section, covered two important aspects. First, “Making buildings earthquake-safe”, which explained how the extent of damage to buildings depended not only on the magnitude of the earthquake, but also on the type of construction practice followed. Second, “Himalayas: next major quake may be west of the recent one”, was an early warning piece that looked into the nature of the seismic activity in the region. In the ‘Comment/Perspective’ page, there was an interview with a leading geologist, Michael P. Searle — who, two years ago, predicted a disaster in Nepal — looked at the issues of lack of infrastructure in South Asia along with the other geological details. There were two first person recollections — one by Aditya Adhikari and the other by The Hindu’s Nepal correspondent Damakant Jayshi — which contextualised and gave us the language to understand the tragedy as a human suffering and not as a distant number crunching spectacle.

It may be of some help if reporters, especially from the 24X7 television channels, get acquainted with the literature on disaster reporting. There are more than 10 manuals that are specifically designed on how to handle disaster in a humane manner. It is important that readers or viewers are also aware of some of the best practices by reporters in a disaster situation to evaluate the quality of journalism offered to them.

 

Key tips

The International Center for Journalists has a simple but effective manual, “Disaster and crisis coverage”. It offers workable and ethical tips for reporters to approach victims and survivors. Let me share some of the key suggestions from that manual so that readers understand why The Hindu took up the case of sensitive reporting in a time of catastrophe. They are: “Calmly and clearly identify yourself before you begin asking questions or filming. The person needs to know who you are and needs to understand that the material could be published or broadcast. Treat each victim with dignity and respect. Journalists walk a fine line: they must be sensitive, but at the same time, must not be timid. Start the interview with open-ended questions that gently prod them into telling their story. “When did you learn of this? Who have you spoken to so far? Ask survivors what they saw and heard. These questions are non-judgmental and provide a chance for them to tell what they are feeling and thinking. Understand that people react differently in these situations – some withdraw, while others find solace in talking. If the person says no to an interview or becomes emotional about the media pushing for information, back off. Give victims a sense of control. Ask if they would be more comfortable sitting or standing during the interview or whether they would like to go somewhere else, away from the chaos to talk.”

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