Thursday, 12 September 2019

Disasters and the Journalism Challenge

Daily, the unfolding catastrophe in The Bahamas is providing instruction for communicators on some of the most important features of managing the persistent nightmare of our geography and state of relative under-development in the Caribbean.

It is much too early to focus on a finite “toll” or anything of the sort – whether it be lives or property or economic or humanitarian opportunity. But it is always a good time to re-visit some of the things we have learnt through experience and observation over the years. This is especially pertinent as we in T&T remain firmly implanted in the middle of a hurricane season and can all remember last year’s flooding and 6.9 earthquake.

One of the first things diligent professional communicators learn about disaster management is the importance of verified information. Though disaster officials are often aware of the likelihood of greater numbers and more dramatic statistics, it is important for them to ensure a high level of orderliness and precision based on what is known and not the latest round of speculation.

On Monday, one Bahamian publication, relying on information gleaned from “a (single) hurricane rescue worker” who cited unnamed “officials”, claimed that more than 2,300 people had been killed by last week’s hurricane. This may or may not have prompted the country’s police force to later announce that, as at Sunday, 45 bodies had been discovered in the Hurricane Dorian affected areas of Abaco and Grand Bahama.

The news story came from a publication that had earlier reported that people described as “Haitian mobs” had been responsible for widespread looting, home invasions and robberies in Great Abaco.
Don’t get me wrong. The figures can and will change, and there is certain to be a “Haitian” issue, but for the moment it is highly irresponsible to present the unverified as fact.

At a workshop organised by the Association of Caribbean MediaWorkers (ACM) last year, following the 2017 hurricanes, we discussed some of these phenomena. (By the way, we have factored in a climate crisis perspective on all this.)

It was remarkable, I noted, how the purveyors of “disaster porn” are attracted to the unverified; how they are also strong devotees of conspiracy theories, capable of spotting the most remote flavour of partisan favouritism, and are far more prone to entertaining irresponsible, inflammatory language to describe people and things happening around them. We have them here for sure.

The “mainstream” media are typically and haplessly victimised by this, perennially being accused of conspiring with officialdom to withhold important information – before, during and after bad things happen.

Yet, when push comes to shove, people expect radio and television stations to be on the air, newspapers to be published and journalists to be presenting unvarnished fact.

This leads to another thing we discussed in Barbados last year: How quickly the online trolls and mischief-makers disappear and re-appear at times of crisis. On the eve of Hurricane Maria in Dominica, for example, the island was in the throes of sharp political conflict.

The online warriors were hard at work. Category 5 defamation, false accusations and damaging propaganda were in abundance. Then Maria landed. While media workers reported for duty, the online combatants remained under their beds. All that remained was journalism … until the water settled, and the usual suspects were back at it again when it was safe.

In examining this, the focus for some of us has been and continues to be on the plight of working journalists operating in the so-called “mainstream media” at times of disaster. This is so because while social media buffs can be helpful, there is a validating role played by established media that has been determined to be indispensable.

Additionally, media workers in the Caribbean have displayed a sense of professional duty that is almost completely absent on the part of many others at times like these.

This is particularly so when it comes to the independent verification of information (and, yes, mistakes are made), the maintenance of plant and equipment to assure operational continuity, and a level of selflessness many media professionals consider to be a part of their job specifications.

All of this to say that at a time when journalism is under constant attack, there is a necessity for precisely what it sets out to achieve – the validation of potentially life-changing information, a strong professional commitment to present accurate news and information, and a rare level of courage.

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