In times of disaster, journalism becomes more crucial than ever. Journalists are necessary to relay information about safety and investigate responsibility.
Recognizing this, the UN recently published a manual, Disaster Through a Different Lens, for journalists covering disasters. The guide is 189 pages long and focuses heavily on disaster prevention, as disaster risk reduction is a "national obligation and a good story".
The first half of the guide is informational and summarizes the scope of disaster prevention, but reads a bit like a high school textbook. It summarizes the Hyogo Framework for Action, a plan of preparedness for disasters that countries the world over have agreed to implement. However, much of the advice it dispenses is general and would be better served if given to a government official than a journalist, such as "plan for land use" and "organize drills". However, the information could prove useful when investigating government preparedness or failure in future disasters.
The second half addresses the media's role in disaster reporting. Jonathan Baker, who until 2010 was the deputy head of newsgathering for the BBC, includes a piece about the media's responsibility. He divides the reporting into phases, from the "primary", in which the main objective is to disseminate information to raise awareness and detail where to find shelter, water, and food.
The next step includes detailing why. What caused the disaster, and could it have been prevented? This step is an important one, but only if it receives follow up to ensure that new measures have been taken. The media is important as a pressure on complacent governments. These are roles are the most commonly accepted by reporters.
The UN guide takes reporting a step further, explaining that Disaster Risk Reduction (DDR) should be a media priority. It likens the issue with smoking, the spread of HIV/AIDS, and preserving the environment, as the media had a significant sway in changing public opinions in these matters. The manual argues that disaster prevention could become the next buzz issue of the moment.
After the lengthy intro explaining the consequences of disasters, the guide finally addresses real steps editors and journalists can take to best cover a disaster. It includes some advice for editors, such as to have at least one "disaster" journalist on staff, and includes a checklist of questions for effective reporting. This section is surprisingly one of the shortest, but packs in a good platform for a thorough investigation. The last section of the manual includes examples of disaster reporting within the past decade as a basis for future disaster reporting.
The manual is heavily focused on risk prevention, and barely addresses the other role of journalism in trying times: to make sense of disaster. The Nepali Times published an article that stressed that disaster journalism "needs to go beyond the what, when, who, why, where and how of reporting". It is not just body counts and government responsibility, but also stories of human fortitude and compassion in the face of tragedy. These stories also construct the larger narrative of disaster aftermath, and are important to local and international communities alike. Perhaps the UN's disaster manual would do well to add one more chapter.
The manual is available online at http://www.preventionweb.net/files/20108_mediabook.pdf. For more information, see the UN-ISDR website: http://www.unisdr.org/we/inform/publications/20108.