Information Aid? The role of the media in responding to disasters

A couple of weeks ago I went to a seminar organised by JICA (Japan International Cooperation Agency) and SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London). The seminar’s title was Information Aid? The role of the media in responding to disasters, and the two speakers were Jon Snow (ITN journalist and Channel 4 News presenter) and Wataru Sawamura (London Bureau Chief and European Editor of the Japan newspaper The Asahi Shimbun). The seminar was chaired by Dr Andrew Collins (Director of the Disaster & Development Centre, University of Northumbria).

The seminar began with a screening of Jon Snow’s Tsunami Diary. Jon Snow was one of the first British journalists into the heart of the Japanese disaster zone in March. In his diary, he recounts his personal experience of Japan’s worst natural disaster for more than a century.

You can watch Jon Snow’s Tsunami Diary, courtesy of Channel 4 News on YouTube:

The seminar’s title came from the recognition in the World Disasters Report (2005) that “Information is a vital form of aid in itself… Disaster-affected people need information as much as water, food, medicine or shelter… [it] may be the only form of disaster preparedness the most vulnerable can afford.

Jon Snow says of his time in Tohoku, “It was one of the most challenging assignments I have known.” At the beginning of the video, Snow wonders how he will cope, and whether or not he will be able to find the words without cliché or hyperbole. After the film was shown, he admitted it was difficult to speak after viewing it, and there was a moment of silence in the room.

As a writer, I too have found it difficult to find the words to write about what happened in March and what is still happening in Tohoku now. I was interested in attending this seminar to hear two experts discuss how the media reports on disasters such as earthquakes and tsunamis. Naturally, there is a certain amount of controversy around the ethics and practices of the media in these difficult contexts. Choosing how to report on a disaster and selecting the words and footage to use is vitally important.

Back in March, the British media seriously screwed up when it came to factual reporting. The newspapers here were littered with headlines like “Mass Exodus from Tokyo” (The Sun), “Get out of Tokyo Now” (The Daily Mail) and “Japan raises nuclear threat level as radiation cloud heads for Britain” (The Mirror). I know that most sane people know not to trust these rags, but sadly some people still read them – and believe them.

I think the job of the journalist is to report accurately and humanely, without putting too much of a spin on things. Thankfully, Jon Snow and Wataru Sawamura did this in March.

In March, when I was in Japan watching the live footage on the TV, I wondered why so many people had felt the need to report what was happening by making their own videos on their phones and cameras. Surely, if a gigantic wave was heading your way, you would want to get the hell out of there, not reach for your camera. I wondered how I would have reacted in the same situation. I admit that my first instinct was to blog, but I was miles away from the actual disaster. However, Snow commented, “It seems the instinct to film is almost as strong as the instinct to survive.” and perhaps this is true.

So, maybe it is not just the role of the official media that we need to be thinking about, but also the role of individuals who take it upon themselves to report on disasters and share their stories with the world. Certainly, from my perspective, I have never felt more useful. In March, I had complete strangers reading my blog and following me on Twitter, just to check that their friends and family in Shizuoka were ok. All I could do was reassure them that, as far as I knew, Shizuoka was just fine. I was there, and I was fine.

I felt a huge responsibility to report as factually as I could about what was going on around me. If I could have, I would have gone to Tohoku to see it with my own eyes, and capture it through my own lens, but I didn’t want to get in the way. There were enough real reporters there, like Jon Snow, doing a good job of sharing the information, and plenty of local people were also sharing films and photos, blogging, Tweeting and writing about what was really going on.

(Image source)

Snow believes that, when reporting on disasters, there are two important things to do:

1) Establish a human connection.

2) Communicate what people can do at home.

I think it is worth all of us, “real” journalists or not, bearing these two things in mind when reporting.

A question was asked during the Q&A of the seminar about how to draw the line between reporting on a disaster and straying into personal grief. I, too, had been wondering this. One of the things that had kept me away from Tohoku was the feeling that I couldn’t really help, and would only get in the way. I couldn’t just go there and take photos of other people’s misery, could I? Snow said that he felt he was constrained by his own humanity, but that people actually want to tell you their stories for the most part.

The seminar was very interesting and left me with a lot of thoughts about journalism, and about how to report on disasters. I feel that, if I were a “real” journalist, I would never be strong enough to do what Snow did. I simply couldn’t go into a disaster zone and report on what was happening. So, I’ll continue to seek out the journalists who can, and relay the information that they provide.

This seminar was part one of a three-part series on Disaster Management – Avoiding a Circus in Addressing a Crisis. The next seminar, Groundhog Aid? The Challenge of Reform within the International Humanitarian System, will be on 11th January and the third seminar, Weathering the Weather – Building Community Resilience in an Unstable Climate, will be on 19th January. For more information about these, please contact Thomas Feeny:

2 thoughts on “Information Aid? The role of the media in responding to disasters

  1. Thanks for writing about this. I watched the recent channel 4 program about the tsunami which featured Japanese describring their own experiences.

    I visited Tokyo, Kansai and Kyushu in November. Several people asked me before I left if I was worried about radiation and one even thought most of Japan had been washed away. I’m sure this is partly due to irresponsible reporting in the UK. The flight there was practically empty which was sad to see and I’m so pleased I went. I’m planning my next trip in 2013 now.


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