Disasters : journalist-free reporting? 1

Will mainstream journalists, who used to mediate between the public and government in disasters, be simply left out of the loop by social media?  In the twenty four hours during the peak of the flood crisis, Queensland police media had thirty nine million hits on their Facebook site. The public used their computers, laptops and smart phones to by-pass the conventional mass media and communicate directly with the authorities. In this year’s floods, Queensland local government and the state Police Service used Twitter and Facebook to disseminate flood warnings and information about local conditions. More…

Reporting Disasters : Social media and the floods 1

Social media were a mixed blessing  as authorities struggled to inform the public during the Queensland floods disaster.

That’s the interim finding of the the Queensland Floods Royal Commission, which today made a series of recommendations on how the public might be better informed during disasters. Queensland local government and the state Police Service used  Twitter and Facebook to disseminate flood warnings and information about local conditions during this year’s catastrophic floods. More…

Reporting Disasters : journalism minders in Libya Reply

As the Libyan civil war hotted up, reporters crossed the border into danger, to get the story.

When they did so, Shaun Filer was there to try to keep them safe.

Some journalists believed that if you got one step closer to the fighting, the more chance you had of getting the big story, Filer said. “In many cases it was the photo journalists… who needed to get really close to get that image,” he said. “It’s not like text [reporting] or doing a piece to camera, the photo journalists needed to go forward”. While Filer was in Libya, a photo journalist was shot near the front lines. More…

Reporting Disasters : the veteran journalist 4

Journalists should avoid going into disaster zones, “boots and all with cameras rolling”, according to veteran reporter, Paul Lockyer.

Lockyer this year choppered into the Queensland town of Grantham, just after it had been devastated by an “inland tsunami” which swept away whole families trying to shelter in their houses. More than thirty people were initially thought to have died, a high figure for Australia where natural disasters might cause billions of dollars damage but result in relatively few deaths.

Paul Lockyer, 61, has been a journalist since 1969. A former foreign correspondent, he’s worked in Bangkok, Washington and Singapore. These days he works for  7.30, the ABC current affairs program, reporting on droughts and more recently, floods. More…

Reporting Disasters : managing risk 2

Covering the unprecedented string of international disasters and political insurrections can be a decidedly risky business.

In the last few months, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation deployed journalists to report on  domestic floods and cyclones, the earthquakes in New Zealand and Japan and the popular uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain and Libya.

ABC Head of  International News, Steven Alward said the ABC had about twenty correspondents deployed overseas. The international events had “stretched resources”. More…

Reporting Disasters : local journalist 1

Communities left without power and phones by Cyclone Yasi looked to local newspapers during the emergency.

John Flynn, 39, is a reporter for the Innisfail Advocate, a newspaper located at the very centre of Cyclone Yasi’s  storm damage in north Queensland.

Flynn said that when he attended the local disaster management comittee , he was told that he would have to evacuate his house at Flying Fish Point, where there was expected to be a six metre ocean storm surge. More…

Reporting Disasters : aid worker 2

CNN locates Queensland in Tasmania

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 Ipswich, 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