A New Approach to Disaster Reporting and Relief Efforts:
Spreading the news to ensure no one is left behind

Table of Contents

Challenge: rethinking ways to enhance information flows

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, that the news media is big business, and by its 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 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 a mention or two.

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 its 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 do the news services fit in? I suggest 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 its focus toward those efforts. I know I could use a hero story or two.

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

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 Image

Handheld devices are used to report data in volunteer crowdsourcing.

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 grassroots 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.

The traditional media outlets continue to be essential – we definitely need as many partners and tools in our communications toolkit as possible! Yet, these differences 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.