Covering Disasters p. 13

By: Debra Gersh Hernandez

Report defines role of the media sp.

THE MEDIA HAVE an obvious role when in comes to reporting news of natural and man-made disasters, and they also are an important part of effective preventive and rescue operations as well.
The importance of the issue is made clear in a new report from the Annenberg Washington Program that shows the tremendous increase in the number and scope of natural disasters.
Between 1963 and 1967, there were 16 disasters that killed 100 or more people and 89 that caused damage to 1% or more of the Gross National Product of the nations affected, the report stated.
By comparison, between 1988 and 1992, there were 66 disasters in which 100 or more people were killed and 205 that cost 1% or more of the GNP, according to the report entitled, International Disaster Communications: Harnessing the Power of Communications to Avert Disasters and Save Lives.
The report, edited by senior fellow Fred Cate, includes a summary of this year’s World Conference on Natural Disaster Reduction, as well as information from previous Annenberg publications focusing on this issue.
“Communications technologies, skills and media are essential to link scientists, disaster mitigation officials, and the public; educate the public about disaster preparedness; track approaching hazards; alert authorities; warn the people most likely to be affected; assess damage; collect information, supplies and other resources; coordinate rescue and relief activities; account for missing people; and motivate public, political and institutional responses,” Cate wrote.
Timely and accurate information is key to saving lives and reducing damage, and it is the media who “play a vital role” in bringing this information to the people.
“For the media to fill these roles most effectively, the scientific and disaster mitigation organizations need to establish and strengthen working relationships with the media,” the Annenberg summary reported.
A number of roundtable participants reportedly urged the media to focus more on disaster prevention and reduction, rather than on the loss of life and property, the report noted.
“Societies are so overwhelmed by human emergencies, by human disasters, that we have halted in our tracks, as it were, on the road to progress and development, to stand helplessly by, paralyzed, watching so many human tragedies unravel before our eyes,” the report quoted Olavi Elo, director of the U.N.’s International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction.
“We are not helped by how the priorities are perceived in the eyes of the media: human misery is far more news worthy than a population that has been made safe and sound, an earthquake or flood that does little or no damage is not news,” Elo was quoted as saying.
The report also quoted others who pointed out that relief organizations also use the media by putting forth bleak images to help them gain support and visibility.
It also is possible for disaster readiness messages to reach the public without going through the news media. The report told of efforts that included printing coloring books and soccer balls for children, as well as developing their own programs for cable and public broadcasting stations.
The roundtable developed two principles and seven recommendations.
The principles, as stated by the Annenberg report, were:
? “Media throughout the world play a vital role in educating the public about disasters, warning of hazards, gathering and transmitting information about affected areas, alerting government officials, relief organizations, and the public to specific needs, and facilitating discussions about disaster preparedness and response.”
? “Timely, accurate and sensitive communications in the face of natural hazards are demonstrated, cost-effective means of saving lives, reducing property damage, and increasing public understanding. Such communications can educate, warn, inform, and empower people to take practical steps to protect themselves from natural hazards.”
The recommendations were:
? “Scientific and disaster mitigation organizations should seek to develop working relationships with the media based on mutual trust and the recognition of differing characteristics, goals, and needs. Regular, effective communication among these disparate groups, before, during, and after disaster ‘events’ can greatly enhance those relationships.
? “Disaster mitigation organizations should seek to provide reliable information to the media, as early as possible, in a concise and readily understandable form, and linked, where possible, to newsworthy events.”
? “Disaster mitigation organizations should seek to identify and communicate specific themes and messages, both through the mass media and in other alternative forms of communication.”
? “Media and disaster mitigation organizations should take advantage of opportunities to work together, to provide relevant training for reporters and field personnel to enhance both disaster preparedness, mitigation and relief efforts and the timeliness, quality and accuracy of reporting about natural hazards.”
? “Media organizations should address disaster prevention and reduction in coverage relating to disasters. Disaster mitigation organizations and the media should identify and communicate to the public specific measures that have either succeeded or failed to reduce the impact of natural hazards.”
? “Media organizations are encouraged to evaluate their reporting about natural hazards and disaster preparedness and, where appropriate, to work with disaster mitigation organizations to improve the quality, accuracy and thoroughness of such reporting.”
? “The IDNDR Secretariat should communicate the outcome of the conference to the International Telecommunication Union and support ITU’s efforts to develop and international Convention on Disaster Communications.”

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