Media: Mayhem and the messengers: A new book on press coverage of disasters reminds David Connett of his days 'doorstepping' as a 17-year-old reporter

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The Independent Online
SINGLE IMAGES of disaster remain fresh long after the details have diminished. Facts about the Indian earthquake will fade, but the mud-caked, mangled bodies, clawed from the rubble and loaded on to bullock carts, will persist in the memory.

As will the cockpit of Pan Am Flight 103 sitting on the grass outside Lockerbie, the upturned hull of the Herald of Free Enterprise at Zeebrugge, the horrendous scenes in the stadiums at Hillsborough and Heysel.

A book* published later this month examines how those images are fixed; focusing on the Lockerbie bombing, it examines the impact of the media coverage on those most directly affected.

Two factors influenced the decision to focus on Lockerbie. The authors are media academics at Syracuse University, New York, as were 35 of the victims on Pan Am 103, students from the university. The resultant media attention provided unfortunate first-hand experiences. The second reason was the sheer scale of the tragedy and the commensurate media response. The huge number of journalists who flooded the small town in the borders of Scotland just before Christmas 1988 brought into sharp relief many of the problems experienced at previous disasters.

Earlier accounts of a similar nature have portrayed reporters, photographers and camera crews in a largely unflattering light. As a reporter who worked on a series of disasters in Britain and abroad during the Eighties, including Lockerbie, I felt that none of them reflected the complex situations I found myself floundering in.

The 'shoot-the-messenger' syndrome is common enough; but although experience has taught me that many complaints about reporters' behaviour are apocryphal, I am not an apologist. Journalists whose insensitivity and stupidity make them a menace certainly exist: I have to admit that there have been colleagues I would shut the door on if they came calling. This study has stories of subterfuge, of reporters posing as friends, relatives and mourners, of harassment, intrusion and general inhumanity. But it also includes the positive achievements: the accurate communication of information that brought comfort and solace to many of those involved. In between is a sober assessment of where the trickiest problems lie.

Disaster stories can make or break the reputations of newspapers and those who work for them, irrespective of the excellence of their day-to-day coverage of events. When a 'big one' comes, nobody wants to be found wanting. But despite the importance attached to it, little if any preparation is ever carried out for such an eventuality.

The problem is not just collecting raw information. Unlike the emergency services, reporters have to interpret a disaster and present it quickly in a way that is easy to grasp. But the task is extremely complex. So, organising coverage is as important as gathering it. Techniques that were pioneered by quality Sunday newspapers have now spread to other organisations and been well honed through practice during the Eighties.

A team of reporters and photographers is despatched to the scene as soon as practical. Other journalists are drawn in for their appropriate expertise and contacts. Yet more are despatched where needed - government departments, for instance. Where expertise is lacking it is brought in from outside professional bodies. All this is marshalled by one, two or more editors working apart from the normal newsdesk that deals with regular daily demands.

Mike Granatt and David Dowle, Scotland Yard's former director of public affairs and current deputy director respectively, have encapsulated the pattern of events in a presentation for police officers on a major incident course at the Police Staff College, Bramshill. They call the pattern of reporting that follows a disaster the 'three Ms': mayhem, mastermind and manhunt.

First comes the factual and colour reporting from the disaster scene. Back at the office, journalists distil the expertise on the subject - anything from the structure of a jumbo jet (Lockerbie and the Air India crash), the latest escalator technology (King's Cross fire), the bow door closing mechanism on a ferry (Zeebrugge) to signalling technology on railway lines (Clapham). Then comes the search for a scapegoat, the apportioning of blame.

It used to take three days for this pattern to appear. Now, ever-increasing competition and advances in technology that make it easier to send greater amounts of information back from the remotest scenes can reduce this to a matter of hours.

Within newspapers, there is little, if any, systematic analysis of the problems in obtaining this information, unless a paper is seriously outclassed by a rival or there are complaints grave enough for editors to have to respond. Nobody ever explained to me, a 17-year-old sent out to 'doorstep the dead', as it was then called, how to act sensitively when dealing with grieving relatives. It was deep-end time, sink or swim.

Psychologists have suggested to me that for many relatives it may be easier to talk to a complete stranger than to someone closer, particularly when that stranger is in a position to commemorate the deceased in some, albeit small way. But post hoc rationalisation is no substitute for proper preparation.

Questions of taste are not so easily addressed. The book deals with the so-called 'pornography of grief'. Taste is treacherous territory, where the most sure-footed can stumble. Few complaints were heard when Michael Buerk and Mohammed Amin of the BBC pricked consciences with their images of the Ethiopian famine in 1984, but the grief of mourners in Britain can result in a spate of objections.

Reporters on the ground don't always have the luxury of time to decide the finer questions of taste and they rely on the good judgement of editors in the office. Aiming at speed above all, most switch on to 'professional' mode, hoovering up as much information and detail as possible, and at the same time trying to make sense of what they see and hear.

Such attitudes can strike others as insensitive, or even ghoulish. A superficial 'machismo' attitude takes hold, but the authors point out that research shows that this doesn't harden reporters; instead, many are deeply affected. Post- traumatic stress disorder strikes reporters in the same way as anyone else. I know of many who have recurring bad dreams after witnessing tragedy.

As the book points out, the media failed to consider the impact of so many people descending on a small town like Lockerbie. We are essentially competitive organisations. We do not instinctively co- operate, and to 'pool' resources seems unnatural. The result is that the very people on whom we depend - victims, witnesses - become overwhelmed, and see us as the problem, not part of the solution. The authors recommend that media groups prepare disaster plans to avert such problems.

On the other hand, not reporting a story in full does not improve the chances of preventing a tragedy recurring and can actually worsen the plight of those involved.

Good reporting broadens dialogue. Many issues raised by disasters do not simply affect those directly involved. Safety at sea, on the railways or in the air concerns everyone.

*'The Media and Disasters: Pan Am 103' by Joan Deppa and others, David Fulton Publishers, price pounds 14.99, published 28 October.

(Photograph omitted)