Reporting Typhoon Haiyan: Dishing Up News a New Way

Posted by on Nov 14, 2013 in Crisis & Risk Communication, Disaster Response, Social Media, Typhoon | 5 comments

Reporting Typhoon Haiyan: Dishing Up News a New Way

 After a major disaster, global news media outlets provide an important public service: they tell stories, report facts and share insightful perspectives. But we must remember, the news media is big business, and by it’s very nature, it sells by sensationalizing. Additionally, it often fails to ask core, critical questions that would help us, Joe Public, better understand and evaluate what is and isn’t working. The media’s response to Typhoon Haiyan (also known as Typhoon Yolanda) that devastated the #Philippines this week is no exception.

Today my colleague John Crowley, a research affiliate at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative and consultant to many international organizations, provided an excellent critical analysis of the problem with news reporting in his opinion piece for Time. Entitled “Stop Catastrophizing Relief Efforts in the Philippines,” John described how media reports are distorting public perceptions on key issues that in turn are negatively impacting the speed of international donor assistance. One such influence he cites is that of exaggerated reports on security and looting which are creating donor fear and resulting in delayed shipments of goods. We have enough drama already. While crime and mayhem might make headline news, it simply makes things worse for those whose lives are hanging by a thread. John rightfully points out that the news media needs to refocus on the foundational, critical issues of the country (e.g., an operating cellular network) and examine this super event in the context of the country’s normally strong response capabilities. I couldn’t agree more. 

Remember the mantra “all disasters are local?” I know of few countries in the world that routinely get pummeled by natural disasters like the Philippines. This is a country whose public, private and non-governmental sectors and civil society diligently work together with international humanitarian organizations to strengthen resilience planning and improve emergency management systems. Those individuals whom I’ve met and worked with over the years have been dedicated emergency managers, open to progress, engaged, and committed to disaster risk reduction and response. They deserve to a mention or two.

Challenge: rethinking ways to enhance information flows Photo/AP

Challenge: rethinking ways to enhance information flows Photo/AP

Are things problematic with the Haiyan response effort? Yes, of course. Today, online WorldCrunch cited Geneva-based daily Le Temps figures of 11.3 million people affected, including 670,000 displaced. With this extent of societal disruption how could the response not be overwhelmingly challenging? Hurricane Katrina practically brought the US to it’s knees not so long ago. If you’ve worked in southeast Asia, you know that of all the regions in the world ripe for innovative problem-solving and requiring international support, this is it.

So where does the news services fit in?  I suggest by taking on a stronger leadership role by examining big picture needs, advocating local needs, and encouraging global, enterprise level (read corporate) philanthropic response. I responded to the Indian Ocean Earthquake and Tsunami as part of a corporate humanitarian response team. Some long-term innovation came out of the team’s effort. I’m heartened that innovation is now also happening with the Philippines response. I wish the world media would turn more of it’s focus towards those efforts. I know I could use a hero stories or two.

So if traditional news outlets aren’t cutting it, providing us with a holistic perspective, where else can we look?

Crowdsourced outreach on Twitter.

Crowdsourced outreach on Twitter.

Personally, I’m finding other sources: factual, community-level information is absolutely gushing in from social media reporting. Twitter and Facebook and other online platforms are being powerfully used by on-the-ground relief organizations, businesses, global humanitarian teams, government agencies and citizens. They’re providing different perspectives from general news sources. (In all fairness, traditional media outlets have joined the social party as well – business is business, after all. Yet, for the most part, the majority are utilizing social media primarily as mainstream information distribution channels.) The social posts of other organizations and nontraditional providers reflect stories of global and grass roots response efforts, progress, problems, concerns and personal stories. They spotlight material and financial needs. Some ask for funding support or donations of time and labor, but isn’t this what we the readers want–to be offered a way to take action?

Social media platforms such as Twitter lend themselves to be used to distribute news as well as gather data to support a response. Nonprofit humanitarian organizations such as Humanity Road offer opportunities for volunteers (#digihums) to help digitally monitor the ongoing crisis, map data, and supply a wide range of “crowdsourced” information to officials and the world. MicroMappers, a joint collaboration between QCRI, digital volunteers and the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), is another example of  information gathering and distribution. The one-way information street of the past is now a busy intersection of contributors, receivers and bystanders. It blends public and private. Techies and execs. In suits. At home with bunny slippers. Now we can all play an active part in response. In creating and receiving news.

Tweetclicker: handheld devices are used to report data in volunteer crowdsourcing. Photo by MicroMappers

Tweetclicker: handheld devices are used to report data in volunteer crowdsourcing. Photo by MicroMappers

The traditional media outlets continue to be essential – we definitely need as many partner and tools in our communications toolkit as possible! Yet, these difference between traditional and social content/format are noteworthy. Social posts dish up real time (or near real time) breaking news, often with a vibrant, personalized hook. They give us a way to respond, and importantly, a way to easily share  the info–even sitting in the comfort of a living room, continents away. Now that’s engagement. Community building. Informational power. It makes me believe that the ability to provide timely, micro-reporting via social feeds is quickly evolving to offer the public an improved form of situational awareness. This makes the responsive version of  a “nightly news” oh so much more interesting.

Yes, these nimble new information resources are increasing our ability to get a real inside look, to understand what is going on – even in a remote, typhoon-ravaged archipelago in the western Pacific Ocean. Yet, we need to stay diligent. We need news content that is true, and truly matters. That supports those who are now facing the bitter reality of losing family members, homes and livelihood.

Can we stay tuned in? Influence response operations and decision-making? I think so. Now if we could only get our friends in the Philippines some cell service.

Feature photo: An evacuee during a military airlift. Photo by Paula Bronstein/Getty Images


  1. Traditional media doesn’t have the reach that social media does. The challenge is that everyone needs to have critical thinking capacity to balance the few that sensationalize the truth. Of course, that happens with traditional media too!

    • Agree, Kathy, that’s a real concern. Especially here in the United States.

      I recently read a post from a colleague lamenting the difference between the culture of news in Europe and that of the US. He reflected that their media reports (all from “free” nations) are often more politically balanced, offer more content depth, and pose varying perspectives. What a great way to develop critical thinking capacity, especially for our youth, the leaders of tomorrow!

  2. You are so right Suzanne. Perhaps I’m jaded because I live in a state devastated by Sandy, but the reporting on this has been horrible IMHO. Other than the ad at the top of a FB timeline, I’ve seen little about where or how to help or donate. Obamacare, while an important story, has replaced this on cable news. A full year after Sandy, so many in NJ, NY are struggling and not rebuilt. We’re only a few days after this event and so little information. Where will these people be, how will they communicate continuing needs a year from now if the event has already disappeared from the news?

    • Carol, I’ve also noted how quickly it has faded from top headlines. I watched it with Sandy. While your NJ and NY communities were still reeling from the lack of resources, the news had moved on to the next story. No matter how heartfelt, the news industry is a business–what bleeds leads. However, journalist excellence involves many aspects of reporting, including continued tracking of critical stories. Some dedicated journalists/news organizations are keeping the Sandy story going.(Would be a good case study…)

      I’m seeing an impressive number of Sandy evaluation reports, new data resources, and even white papers and assessments on sustainable rebuilding options, etc. regularly being posted on Facebook pages and Twitter feeds and actively discussed by LinkedIn groups. From my perspective, sustained recovery “news” is excellent example of where the social media/digital communities are moving beyond traditional news media. Another indicator of the evolving go-to news sources in the years to come?

  3. I am amazed by how many people still count on regular news media for real news. i depend more and more on social media and alternative media for more information. Nice post.

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