Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Covering disasters and catastrophes

Rightfully, the press was quick in covering the Feb. 17 landslide in St. Bernard, Southern Leyte. News reports pointed out the similarities of the incident with the 1991 Ormoc tragedy which, ironically, also happened in Leyte.

Below is a set of guidelines published in the August 1990 issue of the PJR Reports (which was still then known as the Philippine Journalism Review) to help the media in adequately covering such catastrophic events (which we hope to be lesser in the future).

Guidelines for Coverage of Disasters and Catastrophes

- On-site and field reports for radio and television must build on verified facts. Facts of geography, location, population, infrastructure, commerce, and industry flesh out the damage with specific detail.

- Estimates of casualties should be corroborated by various sources. If official counts are available, these should be cited and specifically sourced.

-At the time of the crisis, broadcast reporters need to tone down their delivery, so as not to contribute to public hysteria. Updates and warnings serve the purpose better when issued in a calm and restrained voice.

- Reporters must beef up their stories with research. Orientation about the issues raised by the particular kind of disaster and rescue operations prepares correspondents to observe the procedures more intelligently without interfering with the conduct of operations.

- Reporters must bear in mind that rescue operations take precedence over their story. They cannot interfere with the saving of lives and prevention on injury. They must respect the primary obligation of rescue workers which is to save lives.

- Reporters and photojournalists cannot be too sensitive to the plight of victims and their families and friends. In getting their story or picture, they must respect the victims’ desire for and right to privacy.

- News directors for radio and TV should aim for balanced coverage with the use of straight news, feature, and human interest stories. The latter two provide the necessary color but cannot take the place of hard information.

- Unconfirmed reports should be handled with care and caution. Completely blind reports must be passed off until verified for accuracy.

- Crisis coverage must be devoid of posturing, playing hero, and other kinds of grandstanding on the part of media. It should also guard against the use of media time or space by those pushing for their individual and personal gains. Such gimmickry can get on the nerves and add to the burden of stress.

- Reporters should prepare a line of questioning for spot interviews. Radio anchors should minimize the chit-chat ordinarily used to project intimacy with listeners or to fill up idle time. The level of triviality can be disturbing and out-of-synch with the gravity of the situation. Hour-on-the-hour formats to cover developments should use well-informed resource persons who can help to promote understanding of the disaster. Such segments can also enrich program material by expanding the cast of personalities and voices.

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