Catastrophe on camera: Why media coverage of natural disasters is flawed

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When a natural disaster happens, we watch from afar, transfixed by dramatic news reports. But how accurate is the picture?

The media generally assume that news of war, crime and natural disasters will always win an audience. "If it bleeds, it leads," is a well-tried adage of American journalism. Of the three categories, coverage of war has attracted criticism for its lies, jingoism and general bias. Crime reporting traditionally exaggerates the danger of violence in society, creating an unnecessary sense of insecurity.

Media coverage of natural disasters – floods, blizzards, hurricanes, earthquakes and volcanoes – is, on the contrary, largely accepted as an accurate reflection of what really happened. But in my experience, the opposite is true: the reporting of cataclysms or lesser disasters is often wildly misleading. Stereotyping is common: whichever the country involved, there are similar images of wrecked bridges, half-submerged houses and last-minute rescues.

The scale of the disaster is difficult to assess from news coverage: are we seeing or reading about the worst examples of devastation, or are these the norm? Are victims in the hundreds or the millions? Most usually the extent of the damage and the number of casualties are exaggerated, particularly in the developed world. I remember covering floods on the Mississippi in the 1990s and watching as a wall of cameras and cameramen focused on a well-built house in a St Louis suburb which was slowly disappearing under the water. But just a few hundred yards away, ignored by all the cameramen, a long line of gamblers was walking unconcernedly along wooden walkways to board a river boat casino.

The reporting of natural disasters appears easy, but it is difficult to do convincingly. Over the past year, a series of calamities or, at the least, surprisingly severe weather, has dominated the news for weeks at a time. Just over a year ago, Haiti had its worst earthquake in 200 years, which killed more than 250,000 people. In August, exceptionally heavy monsoon rain turned the Indus river into a vast dangerous lake, forcing millions of Pakistani farmers to flee their homes and take refuge on the embankments. Less devastating was unexpectedly heavy snow in Britain in December and the severe blizzard which struck New York at Christmas. In the first half of January, the news was once again being led by climatic disasters: the floods in Queensland and the mudslides in Brazil.

All these events are dramatic and should be interesting, but the reporting of them is frequently repetitious and dull. This may be partly because news coverage of all disasters, actual or forecast, is delivered in similarly apocalyptic tones. Particularly in the US, weather dramas are so frequently predicted that dire warnings have long lost their impact. This helps to explain why so many people are caught by surprise when there is a real catastrophe, such as Hurricane Katrina breaking the levees protecting New Orleans in 2005 and flooding the city. US television news never admits the role it plays in ensuring that nobody takes warnings of floods and hurricanes too seriously because they have heard it all before.

Governments are warier than they used to be in dealing with disasters, conscious of the political damage they will suffer if they are seen as unfeeling or unresponsive to climatic emergencies. The best-remembered single picture of the New Orleans flood is probably not of water rushing through the streets, but of President Bush peering at it with distant interest out of the window of his aircraft from several thousand feet above the devastation.

UK natural disasters are, thanks to the mild climate, not really in the same league as other countries'. Flooding in the Lake District hardly compares with what happened in Brisbane. The same broken or unsafe bridges are filmed again and again. The tone of the reporting is always doleful and, at times, funereal. Worst cases are presented as typical. The pre-Christmas snow and consequent transport difficulties were spoken of as if everybody in Britain spent their entire time longing to get to work instead of welcoming an excuse to stay at home. The simple pleasure of not having to do anything is underplayed and there is never a mention of the fact that the cities and countryside of Britain are at their most beautiful when they are under a blanket of snow.

There is a further difficulty in reporting British disasters, particularly for television and radio. The British still seem, despite some evidence to the contrary, such as in the aftermath of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, to be genuinely stoical and emotionally tough. It is touching to see reporters baffled and irritated by the refusal of British flood victims, whose living rooms are knee-deep in sewage and water, to treat what has happened to them as more than an unlucky mishap which is not going to ruin their lives.

This British stoicism appears to be quite real even under the most intense pressure. I was in Baghdad in 1990 when British hostages who had been passengers on a British Airways flight that had landed in Kuwait were released just as the Iraqi army was invading. They had then been taken to military camps, power stations, refineries and other Iraqi facilities to deter the US and UK from bombing them. In December that year, Saddam Hussein decided to release his prisoners as a propaganda gesture, the first being freed in front of us journalists in the Al-Rashid hotel in Baghdad. To the frustration of television correspondents and photographers, almost all the former hostages refused to blub to order and seemed impressively unmarked and lacking in self-pity after their ordeal. Television cameras clustered around a single man, evidently drunk, who spoke brokenly of his grim experiences.

Some of the most passionate writing about recent extreme weather episodes in New York and London come not from those who were badly hit but from columnists possibly unaccustomed to inconvenience and discomfort. Philip Stephens wrote an eloquent and bitter piece in the Financial Times about the misery of having, after a long flight, to wait an extra three hours in his aircraft at Heathrow because there was nowhere for it to dock. Paul Krugman of The New York Times compared the failure of New York's Mayor, Michael Bloomberg, to cope with the blizzard with that of President Bush after Hurricane Katrina. Reminded that some 1,500 people had died in the hurricane and casualties in New York were minimal, he later withdrew the comparison with some embarrassment.

Popular response to natural disasters is scarcely an accurate guide to national characteristics. Other factors may come into play in promoting stoicism and endurance, notably the possession of an insurance policy covering possible damage. After Hurricane Andrew struck south of Miami in 1992, I remember seeing people squatting in the ruins of their wooden houses with large notices telling passing insurance adjusters that the ruined house was still inhabited and they wanted to see him or her. Not surprisingly they were a lot more philosophical about their plight than Haitians in Port-au-Prince or farmers in the Punjab.

Once the initial drama of a disaster is over, coverage frequently dribbles away because nothing new is happening. I remember how bizarre the foreign editor of the newspaper I was then working for found it that I should want to go back to Florida a month after Hurricane Andrew to see what had happened to the victims. "I am not sure that is still a story," he responded sourly to what he evidently considered a highly eccentric request.

I could see his point. After a day or two, accounts of disasters sound very much the same. There are the same bemused refugees on the road or in a camp of tents or huts; houses destroyed by an earthquake, be it in Kashmir or Haiti, look like squashed concrete sandwiches; the force of the water in rivers in flood often leaves nothing standing but a few walls and some rubble. Every disaster has uplifting rescue stories when a few survivors are miraculously pulled alive from the wreckage of houses. Refugees always complain, often with reason, about the slow response of their government and the aid agencies.

Even a little looting is reported as a general breakdown of law and order. Post-the Iraq war, most media companies or their insurance companies have contracts with security companies which have every incentive to emphasise the threat to journalists. In Haiti, where the danger was minimal, many correspondents were wearing body armour as if they were on the road out of Kabul.

I have always had sympathy for looters, who are usually just very poor people with every reason to hate the powers that be. I was once in a police station in Haiti that was being systematically torn apart, with looters carefully extracting nails from the woodwork for later sale in the market. They were so good at their work that the stairs collapsed, marooning other looters on the first storey of the police station. I always found in Iraq that the presence or absence of looters is a useful pointer as to how risky a situation really is, since only extreme danger will deter the thieves.

Even the worst of disasters has a limited life as a news story unless something new happens. The Indus floods which started last July were like any great flood, except that their extent was enormous and the waters very slow to subside. In this vacuum of fresh news, spurious reports took life. One claimed that Islamic fundamentalist charities were taking advantage of the failure of the government and Western air agencies to act and were spreading Islamic militancy among angry and receptive refugees. Journalists liked this story because they know that the suggestion that "Islamic fundamentalist militants" are at work will revive the most dead-in-the-water story in the eyes of a news editor. Islamic militants also promote the tale, and are happy to confirm it, because it shows them as more influential and active than they in fact are.

The story of the Islamic militant charities first emerged during the Kashmir earthquake of 2005 and was widely believed. Eventually, the World Bank, which found that donors were discouraged by the idea that aid was falling into the hands of militants, felt compelled to fund a survey of Kashmiri villagers to disprove the story.

I have always found that the most interesting part of reporting disasters, which brings them to life in my mind, is the way in which they reveal, like nothing else, what a society is really like. I had often been in Miami before Hurricane Andrew struck, but until it was destroyed by the wind and I went to see it, I never realised that there was a sprawling town, its one-storey houses largely made out of wood, to the south of Miami, where workers in the city and in the fruit plantations had their homes. It was not the sort of place that ever appeared in Miami Vice or CSI: Miami.

Last September, I was in Rajanpur in south Punjab looking at the havoc caused by the Indus floods. I asked how many people had died in one area and was told, as if this was to be expected, that a number of those who had died had been hostages held in their heavily fortified headquarters in the flood plain by local bandits who had manacled them. They had not had time to free them from their chains as the waters of the Indus rose and they had all drowned. It had never occurred to me before, as in Iraq and parts of Afghanistan, that the Punjab had its quota of professional kidnappers and bandits too powerful for the police to deal with.

A central reason why the reporting of natural disasters so often sounds contrived and formulaic is that the journalist feels that he or she must pretend to an emotional response on their own part and that of their audience, which is not really there. It is one thing to feel grief for a single person or a small group whom one knows, but very difficult to feel the same way over the death or misery of thousands one has never met.

I was in Belfast in 1974 at the height of the bombings and sectarian killings. I remember saying to a friend, an MP called Paddy Devlin, that I was shocked by some particularly nasty bomb attack that had killed or mutilated a dozen people. He derided my reaction as spurious. "You don't really feel that," he said. "Nobody who lives here with so many people being shot or blown apart every day can have an emotional reaction to every death. The truth is we don't really feel anything unless something happens to a member of our family or the half-dozen people we are closest to."

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