To be a country that “resists”: The contribution of journalists to disaster and risk management

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By Raúl Rodríguez, Director of the School of Journalism, Universidad de Chile. MA in Political Communications. National Representative in the World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters 2012-2017 (AMARC)

Translated by Natalia Tranchino

The American offensive in Syria marks a turning point in the Middle East and in international relations. Not only is it a matter of power “balance” with Russia in the conflict zone or a new geopolitical strategy on the part of the US, but it is also a humanitarian matter since the risk of disaster in the region is increased.

According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), Syria is undergoing the greatest internal displacement crisis in the world with 7.6 million people and almost four million refugees in the neighboring countries. The international organization estimates that 4.8 million people need humanitarian assistance in poorly-accessible areas and places besieged by troops either from one side or the other.

More than ever, disasters of all magnitudes implore the mass media and opinion leaders to use information networks so that messages and objective facts can circulate, while taking into consideration the emotional state of victims, from the emergency itself to the reconstruction process.

Accordingly, communication and media take another shape in times of crisis. Editorial lines are put to the test, together with the production of information and the journalistic approach in the coverage of these unusual facts.

Last March Chile was just commemorating two years since the floods in Atacama and the unequal reconstruction process experienced by the population in the affected area. Moreover, fresher in our memories are the forest fires, the worst disaster of this kind in the history of our country.

In the middle of the tragedy that affected the central and southern areas, the National Council for Television (CNTV) requested TV channels to respect the emotional state of the fire victims during their broadcasts.

“The news coverage made by TV channels is fundamental to become familiar with the needs and actions of the institutions that respond when emergencies occur. Nevertheless, it is in these (sic) circumstances when the protocols and tools assuring a responsible delivery of information are most valued», stated the document sent to the channels.

The relevant actors are multiplied and the magnitude of the facts calls for greater thoroughness in the production routines and an ethically responsible approach. However, the spectacularization of the news, the scarce citizen participation in these processes and the lack of collective action towards the tragedy make it difficult for the information management process to be suitably carried out amidst a disaster.

Conceptual guidelines for “handling” a disaster

A disaster may have a natural (earthquake) or biological (epidemics) origin, or it can be caused by  human being (like fires or wars). In turn, the risks involved are the sum of the possible casualties, absence of health conditions, lack of basic supplies and the difficulty of accessing goods and services, all these according to what is stated by the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR)

Additionally, the risk caused by a prospective disaster is based on the threat or danger as much as on the vulnerability of a community. Therefore, the risk can increase or diminish proportionally to the extent that some or both factors vary throughout time.

Given this background, the question that arises is how to manage the risk of a disaster whose social process includes the assessment of the risk together with its prevention and reduction; preparation, response, rehabilitation, and reconstruction.

In the Third UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction taking place in Japan a new Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030 was sanctioned, which defined two core aims: to improve governance in disaster management and to foment coordination among all the sectors involved.

Chile still owes a debt in regards to a proper handling of disasters, as it has been six years now since the law project implementing the National System of Emergency and Civil defense and the National Agency of Civil Defense entered the Congress on 22 March 2011. To date, the project is still in its second constitutional proceeding in the Senate.

In spite of the status of extreme urgency given to the project this year in light of the forest fires occurred in summer, the State and its institutions move a lot slower than what the socionatural “reality” of our country requires. This reactive attitude only increases the risk of new events, going against the need for public policies and sustainable development in economic, environmental, territorial and security matters.

In this sense, the mass media can play an important role with respect to these challenges so as to replace improvisation with permanent tasks. “Disasters can be reduced considerably if people stay informed on the measures they can take to reduce their own vulnerability and if they keep motivated to take action”, states the Hyogo Framework for Action of the UN which was subscribed by Chile in 2005.

Guidelines for the action: the active journalist

The excess of memes has become normal as we see “all-terrain” journalists and reporters soaked to the bone just to demonstrate the impact of the rough weather. Another case is constituted by the “very sensitive” reporters of some morning TV shows that cry with the victims of a fire. This confirms the need to advance in protocols that regulate information processing during catastrophic situations.

The UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) has given recommendations to governments and mass media to face the “threats” and to prevent “disasters” in a better way. Such suggestions range from using appropriate language to adopting a culture of prevention, which may become a guideline for both community and citizens. These are the key elements to ensure that the media, particularly those of greater impact, can provide timely and truthful service. Moreover, in this way they can also fulfill their role as communicators with a deeper sense of ethics and social responsibility.

Back in 2015 the National Council for Television (CNTV) advised in a document for the “Identification of good practices for the TV coverage of tragedies, disasters and crimes” that although television channels have self-regulated standards, they do not have specific or practical rules for daily coverage, in accordance with their programmatic and editorial delineations.

The Manual for Disaster Risk Management elaborated by UNESCO in 2011 establishes actions based on the UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction. These actions include spreading scientific and technological knowledge on risks and threats, encouraging the incorporation and active participation of mass and alternative media in the risk management process, as well as the inclusion of academic and professional institutions of communication. Additionally, the avoidance of disinformation and abuse of the informative and communicational function is sought by promoting codes of ethical behavior for communicators at the moment of an emergency or disaster.

When interviewed by Palabra Publica, Guatemalan journalist Lucy Calderon, a specialist in disaster management communication and former president of the World Federation of Science Journalists, raises three essential tasks: “first of all, a human touch must be given to the news stories that are broadcast but without further victimizing the audience. We must attempt to give answers to the questions that are worrying the affected population. Secondly, an ad hoc team must be formed within the newsrooms in order to informatively respond to the catastrophe; for that reason, journalists have to undergo continual training and qualification. And thirdly, in addition to the counting of the damage the journalist should inform about prevention so as to orient the affected community on how they can avoid going through something similar again. In short, journalists must give information that helps them become resilient and to avoid greater damages in the future”.

Although the communitarian, local, and digital media together with journalistic research centers have contributed to diversify the provision of information and to propose new approaches to the conflicts we go through, the media as a whole must encourage a more informed debate on the effects and consequences of these catastrophes, in order to promote a culture of prevention instead of a mere culture of reaction.

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