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5 tips for better coverage of disasters

South America | Media Ethics

[Leer en español.]

HOW SHOULD JOURNALISTS COVER DISASTERS?  What ethical conflicts appear when reporters confront death and displacement, and when sources are emotionally the most vulnerable?  Where is the line between morbid curiosity and the public's right to know? 

These are just a few of the questions covered on October 8-9 at the conference "Covering Disasters: A Christian & Ethical View" in Santiago, Chile, organized by The Media Project and the newly formed group COMUNICA, a Chilean network of Christians in journalism. 

The conference boasted noted speakers, including Sergio Barrientos, head of the Dept of Seismology at the University of Chile; nationally known journalists Soledad Onetto and Arturo Figueroa; Rev. Luis Mussiett, the chaplain of the country's prison security forces; Bill Prasad, journalist and trauma counselor in the USA; professor Abraham Santibáñez, former president of Chile's Union of Journalists; and Rev. Dr. Arne H. Fjeldstad, CEO of The Media Project. 

These are some of the key findings from the conference:

1.  Preserve human dignity.

Rev. Arne Fjeldstad presented practical approaches to reporting in disasters, including having the patience to wait for sources to express their pain, to cry, before regaling them with questions.  He counseled reporters never to ask a question they would not themselves want to be asked.

He said there is no deadline or editor's order that may trump the dignity of the individual, his pain or her intimate suffering.  It is essential to empathize with victims and to put oneself in their place, and use that perspective to inform one's questions.

2.  Recognize when journalists have been traumatized. 

Former journalist and current trauma counselor Bill Prasad described just how common it is for journalists to experience post-traumatic stress disorder.  Any catastrophic event, terrorist attack, fire or murder leaves psychological consequences in its wake.  It is rare for journalists to even consider those consequences, much less attend to them.

It is essential that reporters be aware of that, regardless of the professional distance one maintains from catastrophic events, a reporter's emotional state will be affected.  Reporters are not immune to suffering, the smell of death, blood and the heavy weight of a news event.  Prasad strongly recommends rest and psychological care immediately following an assignment to a crisis event.

3.  Avoid addiction to images of death: "death pornography". 

Soledad Onetto, nationally known Chilean journalist and former news presenter at Channel 13, gave a raw analysis of television's handling of disasters.  She presented the notion of "death pornography" to refer to the repetitious broadcasting of fearsome or morbid images in order to fill long hours of coverage of catastrophes. 

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