Reporting Disasters

"After all natural disasters you have bodies who you don't know who they are." 
Richard Gordon, Director of Disaster Management Center at Bournemouth University.

How does the media react to a disaster? By shouting chaos chaos chaos!! By trying to find someone to blame!! By rolling out apparent experts!! Media coverage is renowned for being geographically disproportionate. A murder down the the road may often get more coverage than 600 dead in a train crash in Outer-Mongolia. It is not only the disaster that forms a story, but the response to it. This is because...

Disaster management goes to the heart of governance.
This was dramatically displayed during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Failure at local, state and national levels to pass responsibility up the chain of command resulted in a delayed and inadequate response. Dead bodies remained in the streets for weeks and the largely black population left in town were stranded at the overcrowded Super-Dome without proper food supplies, sanitation or information. In later reflections at the Frontline club Matt Frei, then BBC, described the Mayor of New Orleans as "nuts," the Police chief as "Off-broadway" and state governor as a "Cruella Deville democrat." The aftermath was, he said, the "Dysfunction of America at it's very worst."

Part of the problem in the Katrina scenario was that natural disaster had been moved down the funding list due to the perceived threat of terrorism post 9/11. Levels of responsibility for dealing with disaster are usually defined in an national plan. In recent research from Bournemouth University of 167 countries only 30% had completed a national plan.  When lower level agencies cannot deal with a situation it must be passed to a higher level. This demands cooperation between agencies and a willingness to admit limitations.

Disaster management, media and investigation teams have different priorities.
A management team may make the following priorities:

1) Save life
2) Restore order
3) Restore services
4) Relieve suffering
5) Inform
6) Investigate

Where as the media would prioritise informing the public above all else!

There can sometimes be a conflict between resuming normal service/order and thorough investigation of what went wrong. Every man made disaster is a potential scene of crime. The Costa Concordia became a criminal investigation scene following the actions of the captain. The necessity of getting transport moving after a derailment or bomb incident can cause conflict with the investigators. Search and rescue teams have often had to plead for more time before clearance teams move in to clear a fallen building. In the end it is usually the most senior who get their way.

Natural, man made or both?
Disasters can be divided into man made and natural types. Natural disasters often have man made consequences. An earthquake itself is not a disaster but the consequences, the way infrastructure is effected, can produce one. The breaking of levee that gave way to the flooding caused the disaster in New Orleans. The damage to the nuclear reactors at Fukushima turned a natural disaster into a nuclear one of global significance. It is the impact of natural phenomena upon human infrastructure that intensifies a hazard into a disaster. The degree of exposure to a hazard determines the risk of a disaster occurring. If exposure can be reduced then there is less likely hood of disaster. Risks can be reduced but never prevented. ( Nb, What the media calls a "disaster" the emergency services prefer to call a "major incident.') Purely man made disasters occur commonly as a consequence of crowds, the nuclear industry, transportation and, perhaps less perceptively, as a result of climate change.

Where are stories to be found?
 In a rapidly changing world exposure to disaster can be increased or decreased by levels of development. Disasters can set back development or conversely, provide opportunities to start again. Where development increases vulnerability, such as building in a flood plain or the effects of deforestation on a flood plain, a rich source of stories can be found.
Synthesized following a talk by Richard Gordon, Director of Disaster Management Center at Bournemouth University.


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