Disasters are big news. In sheer size, they don’t come much bigger than Queensland’s floods and cyclones. Muddy waters inundated land as big as Germany and France, wrecked thousands of kilometres of roads and railways, swamped dozens of towns including the state capital, and resulted in more than twenty deaths. Category Five cyclone Yasi then brought 280 kph winds which flattened crops, smashed marinas and generated an eight metre tidal surge.
Queensland became an international media event.
Parachute journalists dropped into the chaos. Television crews roamed the shattered streets looking for talent. The Queensland Premier, Anna Bligh, delivered updated situation reports on regular news conferences, broadcast live on national and commercial television stations which suspended normal programming during the crisis.
Tim Mc Inerny, who ran the Red Cross the evacuation Centres in Rockhampton and , said international journalists seeking telephone interviews would wake him at dawn and call in until bed time. At the peak, he would do more than “two dozen plus” interviews a day, with everyone from the BBC, to French documentary makers to German children’s television.
The Germans were presenting regular news features from a kid’s perspective. They wanted to interview children for their perspective on what was fairly difficult circumstances. I struggled to find a child who could articulate what they wanted. At the end of the day the child we found wasn’t able to come up with the goods and we had to say, “Thanks for coming, but you’ll have to try elsewhere!”
Mc Inerny organised formal press briefings each day at eleven, attended by more than a dozen media outlets. “It was very time consuming, but I had a good team [of relief workers] and it was better they [journalists] got it from the horse’s mouth,” Mc Inerny said.
In Rockhampton where the flood waters rose slowly, parachute television journalists became increasingly desperate for a fresh angle. Mc Inerny said that he would arrange access to “little events”, like a Black Hawk helicopter landing or a concert by flood victims, to give them something to report on. “It was a challenge for a lot of them [journalists], sticking it out,” he said.
In Ipswich, visiting high-profile personalities became a focus of media attention, with scrums developing around politicians, entertainers and even a group of 90 footballers.
All of a sudden all these people found they have histories traced back to Ipswich. No-one ever admits it prior. They would walk in and start backslapping. It was good though. It built up people’s energy and kept them positive.
Nevertheless conscientious journalists sought out the stories behind the disaster, the plight of the evacuees.
We had people who have come in shaken and can barely talk. Their homes have gone. They have had to swim out or get out by boat.
Mc Inerny saw himself as a “conduit” between these disaster victims and the press. He said most of the journalists he dealt with were competent, “as long as they understood my priorities and the pressures I had”. “Journalists who empathised with the community and were respectful of the challenging circumstances, I would give them all the time I could.”
What of those that didn’t?
People saw right through them. There was one journalist who had pre-arranged to come into the centre at eight o’clock at night and one of the evacuees told him in an Australian manner where he should be heading.
Mc Inerny’s advice to journalists covering disasters..
Emergencies are intense periods and the people you are going to talking to have a lot on their plate. So you might want to sit back and take half an hour to soak it up before you get that five minutes of some body’s time . Learn what’s going on without being invasive. You don’t have to have all the details before you get there, but you do have to be flexible.
- “Covering the Boxing Day Tsunami: the media mandate.” Australian Studies in Journalism. University of Queensland. Brisbane. Number 15. pp 56/ 91 2005
- Visualizing the Flood Crisis in Queensland with Real-Time Citizen Reports (readwriteweb.com)
- Pain will persist well beyond this summer’s disasters (thepunch.com.au)