Home / English / Conflict and Disaster Reporting

Conflict and Disaster Reporting

Uddipana Goswami |

In conflict reporting, there are a few basic duties that conflict reporters should adhere to at all times while reporting a conflict situation. But in both disaster reporting and conflict reporting, a vital question remains unanswered: how much violence, death and destruction can be written about or shown on television, or broadcast to radio listeners?

In recent years there has been a rapid advancement in media technology and reach. This has coupled with an escalating demand for all categories of information from around the world in every corner of the world. As a result, there has been a concomitant demand for specialists in the various fields of reporting for the media. Conflict and disaster reporting is one such field that calls for specialised knowledge and training.

The term ‘disaster’ can be stretched to include both man-made and natural disasters, and can thus embrace the concept of ‘conflict’ as well. However, considering the fact that conflict reporting is an area that has been carving a distinctive niche for itself in the journalistic world, it shall be treated as separate from disaster reporting for our purposes. Disaster reporting will then be confined to the coverage of natural disasters.

What is Conflict and Disaster Reporting?

The concepts of ‘disaster’ and ‘conflict’ are allied to each other, and the term ‘disaster’ can easily be stretched to include both natural disasters like earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, and so on as well as man-made disasters like wars and ethnic conflicts. Over and above this, reporting on both disaster and conflict requires similar skill sets and calls for comparable sensibilities and sensitivities among those undertaking the task. However, in the increasingly specialised world of media reporting, the two are usually treated as separate genres. For our purposes also, then, we shall be treating the two as separate categories. We will however, proceed with a discussion of the two with the knowledge

Defining a Disaster

Very simply expressed, a disaster is a catastrophe, an event resulting in great loss and misfortune. It can be defined as any natural or man-made catastrophe of substantial degree that causes major physical damage or destruction, loss of life and sometimes permanent change to the natural environment. An event or incident may be termed a ‘disaster’ when the havoc it wreaks is disproportionate with the ability of the affected community or society to cope with using its own resources.

The impact of a disaster however, can be minimised if the community is well prepared for it. For this, a proper understanding of its characteristics is called for. For instance, it needs to be understood that disasters can be of all kinds and sizes and can occur anywhere and they are generally unpredictable. They can result from natural or unnatural (man-made) hazard – a hurricane is an example of a natural disaster and a transport accident is an example of a man-made disaster. A flood however, can be caused both by natural causes (for example, excessive rain) or by man-made causes (for example when a dam bursts). Thus, sometimes there may be no water-tight distinction between man-made or natural disasters. It must also be remembered that some disasters occur more often in certain areas and therefore present a greater risk to those areas (for instance earthquakes in seismic zones). Some disasters are of limited duration, while others last for long periods (for instance an earthquake may last only a few seconds, but a drought may go on for years). Also importantly, some disasters happen suddenly, while others come after a warning period of hours or days (say for instance, a transport accident like a derailment may happen without notice, but a landslide in a hilly area may take place after days or weeks of continuous rains).

Defining a Conflict

The basic definition of a conflict is an open clash, or an incompatibility of interests between two opposing groups or individuals. To be in conflict is also defined as to go against, as for instance, against rules and laws. It might also be extended to mean a dispute or a disagreement or argument about something of importance to the two or more parties in conflict. At its most extreme form, a conflict can also take the form of a battle, or a hostile meeting of opposing military forces in the course of a war.

M Nicholson in his book Rationality and the Analysis of International Conflict (1992:11) defined conflict as follows:

A conflict exists when two people wish to carry out acts which are mutually inconsistent. They may both want to do the same thing, such as eat the same apple, or they may want to do different things where the different things are mutually incompatible, such as when they both want to stay together but one wants to go to the cinema and the other to stay at home. A conflict is resolved when some mutually compatible set of actions is worked out. The definition of conflict can be extended from individuals to groups (such as states or nations), and more than two parties can be involved in the conflict. The principles remain the same.

Present day peace and conflict research assumes that conflicts are the expression of opposing interests; that they are characteristic of modern societies and that they are endemic to modern societies. All attempts to de-escalate conflicts, stop wars and end insurgencies take these basic assumptions as their starting point.

Allied to the genre of conflict reporting is the comparatively recent concept of ‘peace’ journalism. It has been defined as the decision taken or the choice made by editors and reporters about what to report, and how to report it so that their reportage creates an environment in society at large to consider and to value non-violent responses to conflict.

There are a few main elements of reporting that need to be kept in mind when a journalist goes to a conflict zone or into an area devastated by some disaster, whether man-made or natural. The journalist must internalise the fact that covering a conflict or disaster zone requires a lot of sensitivity and calls for a deep understanding of the various nuances of the situation. A superficial survey of the circumstances is not enough. Thus, in a conflict prone area or a disaster affected zone, a reporter must ask himself/herself the following questions:

Has it been possible to acquire a clear understanding of what is going on? Disasters and long-standing conflicts tend to be very complex. A proper assessment of the situation is called for to comprehend all the parties/factors that have been in play to bring about the current situation that is being reported.

What are the deep-rooted causes of the conflict or the disaster? On the face of it, disasters strike and conflicts break out suddenly, and it is easy to disguise the causes in relatively simple terms which address only the immediate factors. More often than not, the underlying causes are quite different. A good reporter tends to explore both the superficial and the underlying causes of the conflict or the disaster and to do so from all possible angles and perspectives.

What are the full effects of the conflict or the disaster on the different sections of the people? Often, in the immediate aftermath of a disaster or a conflict, it is not possible for the affected people or the conflict participants to comprehend the full impact of the disaster or the conflict on the community as a whole or on individual sufferers. As a result, a proper assessment of the human as well as monetary costs cannot be made. This hampers relief work or compensation mechanisms and victimises certain sections of the people. A journalist being an outsider with an objective viewpoint can make a meaningful and substantial contribution in this case by clearly assessing the full effects.

Are the ‘facts’ in possession of the reporter accurate? In such complex situations as disasters and conflicts, facts become the first casualties. This may happen at times because the facts are hidden or too complex to comprehend; sometimes because of contrary claims; and sometimes because of active embedding of misleading, false or malicious information by vested interest groups. In such a situation, the reporter should do a careful fact-finding and sift the truth from the falsehoods before publishing or broadcasting any information.

Are the media reports causing panic in the disaster struck area or contributing to conflict escalation? The reporter must be constantly careful not to aggravate the sufferings of the people in what is obviously an already inhumane situation, be it as a result of some natural disaster or of a political man-made conflict. People already in the grip of uncertainty and terror might easily panic or get incited to perpetrate further violence if they are exposed to incendiary or inaccurate media reports. Hence, a reporter must take care not to escalate polarisation, panic, violence or loss in anyway.

How can media reports de-escalate a conflict or mitigate the impact of a disaster? There are many ways how a journalist can contribute to de-escalating hostilities and allaying the sufferings of people affected by violence or disaster. To do this however, the journalist must be sensitive to the situation around and remember the points made above.

Disaster Reporting: Responsibilities and Challenges

There are three stages in which a reporter can play an important role when a disaster strikes:

At the stage when the disaster is yet to strike: this stage is known as disaster prevention. The disaster reporters can often help prevent a disaster by broadcasting or publishing forewarnings and instigating the responsible agencies to undertake preventive measures. And even if this may not always be possible, given the intractability of nature, at the very least, they can prepare the people they address to face an oncoming disaster in a more equipped manner. Thus they can do a proper and realistic risk perception analysis, urge the government and other agencies to make provisions for adequate provisions like food, and disseminate to the people the knowledge of how to behave in emergencies. They can also at this stage act as a watch dog and influence the political priority of disaster prevention and ensure the involvement of the citizens in disaster management.

At the stage when the disaster has struck: this is the stage of acute disaster when proper and efficient disaster management is called for. At the stage the disaster reporters can engage themselves in disseminating warning and reassuring messages so as try and calm the people down. They can also disseminate recommendations of how to act and through all these efforts ensure that the people do not panic. They should also, at this stage, reflect the reality and not spread rumours by creating their own ‘media reality’. The disaster reporters can also prove the usefulness of the media by distributing uniform risk estimates and make recommendations to the responsible public bodies and NGOs willing to help.

In the aftermath of the disaster: this is the stage of disaster coping when the disaster reporters should be reaching out to the victims with vital information about humanitarian response. They should be informing citizens and policymakers about the nature and scale of the disaster and the progress of the relief effort. They should also facilitate information sharing among disaster responders and connect disaster survivors with those who are able to assist them. And again, in their role as a watch dog, they should attribute faults and assign accountability wherever due. But the most valuable input that the disaster reporters can provide at this stage is by publicising the lessons learnt from the disaster so that the mistakes made during the current disaster are not repeated in the next.

Over and above all the responsibilities at these various stages, the disaster reporters must face one very important issue throughout their coverage of the death and destruction caused by the disaster. This is the issue of the manner in which the death and destruction are described in print or broadcast on air. It will perhaps remain a question that can never be answered: how can a journalist avoid the “house of horrors” approach and treat death and destruction with real gravity but without sanitizing violence?

Conflict reporting: Responsibilities and Challenges

There are a few basic duties that conflict reporters should adhere to at all times while reporting a conflict situation. These may be enumerated as follows:

Duty to comprehend the true nature and dynamics of the conflict: A conflict reporter has to study and understand the concepts of conflict and conflict resolution in general before reporting conflicts at all. He or she should also understand how conflicts develop and how resolutions can emerge out of conflict situations. It is his or her duty to know about the “rules of war”, and he or she should also acquaint himself or herself with peace studies and with the process of evolution of resolutions.

Duty to report in a fair manner from the conflict zone: It is a conflict reporter’s duty to report on the conflict in a fair manner and in a balanced way. He or she has to report the complexities and nuances of the conflict situation and should cover the entire gamut of opinions of all factions and sub-factions involved in the conflict. But more than anything else, it is the duty of the conflict reporter to make his or her own allegiances clear, if that is, he or she has any.

Duty to report the background and deep-rooted causes of the conflict: The conflict reporter has a duty to accurately represent both the legitimate and perceived grievances of all the parties involved in the conflict. He or she has to remember, and also remind the readers, that even perceived grievances are important when it comes to perpetuating and/or resolving conflicts.

Duty to present the human impact of a conflict: The conflict reporter has a duty to represent the trauma and the human stories of all the victims of the conflict. It is however important that he or she does it in a balanced, professional and non-exploitative manner.

Duty to report on peace initiatives in the conflict zone: The conflict reporter has a duty to report on the efforts of those working on peace and reconciliation processes, just as he or she has a duty to report on those actors and elements that contribute to the exacerbation of the conflict. He or she has to look beyond the bi-polar politics and seek for sources beyond the primary actors in the conflict. After all, conflicts are not usually stark black and white situations with the involvement of merely two opposite sides or combatants. It is essential that the conflict reporter should break out of the simplistic mode of reporting on conflicts. But most importantly, he or she should identify ongoing peace efforts.

Duty to recognise the influence and impact of the media on the conflict situation: The conflict reporter has a duty to be forever aware that his or her reportage will have an impact on the conflict situation and affect the lives of people embroiled in the conflict. It is therefore his or her duty to be ever vigilant and avoid being used by either one or the other party involved in the conflict and to expose any effort at media manipulation that he or she may be confronted with.

Duty to be politically correct and remain sensitive to people’s sensitivities: The conflict reporter must use politically correct terminology and avoid, or at least reduce, the use of emotive terminology. He or she needs to do this not only in the interest of journalistic impartiality and objectivity but also because in any conflict situation, a lot of people’s sensitivities are involved. If he or she describes somebody as a ‘terrorist’, he or she might be seen as treating the next person with disdain – one person’s terrorist may after all be another’s freedom fighter. This was evident during India’s struggle for independence when the freedom fighters of India where branded as terrorists by the colonial power.

Duty to be aware of international humanitarian laws and the basic laws of war: It is an important duty of the conflict reporter to know the basics of international humanitarian laws so that he or she can point to those laws of war and hold governments or other parties involved in the conflict accountable. It has also been proved that studying events and situations from the angle of international humanitarian law makes conflict coverage more accurate and compelling.

Ultimately, as in the case of disaster reporting, a vital question remains unanswered even in the case of conflict reporting, and that has to do with the violence, death and destruction caused in times of conflict: how much violence can be written about or shown on television, or broadcast to radio listeners? The dilemma that on the one hand, news about violence is being sensationalised and on the other, that it is being too sanitised and censored will always remain.

Preparing to Work in Disaster Areas and Conflict Zones

Having discussed the duties and responsibilities of reporters working in disaster areas and conflict zones, it is also quite important that we investigate the dangers of working in such hostile and unfriendly environments under the constant threat of danger. A journalist needs to take care of himself or herself while at the same time trying to capture a bold story for those who are not in the same circumstances as he or she is. The following are certain measures that need to be taken so that disaster and conflict reporting does not endanger the reporter:

  1. Identifying danger zones and acquainting oneself with the risks involved. The aim is to forearm the reporter with useful information that he or she can use when face to face with danger. A familiarity with the terrain, the conflict dynamics and the various aspects of the disaster involved are quite essential.
  2. Undertaking training before entering the danger zone. This involves basic safety and first aid training in case of low risk areas and specialist training when entering high risk zones. For instance, BBC staff sent to areas where battlefield conditions prevail have to take the following courses: the Hostile Environment Course, which covers a range of risks encountered in different parts of the world; the Battlefield First Aid (BatFat) Course; and the Off-Road Driving Course.
  3. Putting safety considerations before the requirements of programming and newsgathering. The idea is that human life is more precious.
  4. The news organisation commissioning the disaster or conflict reportage should ensure that there is proper backup for equipments and adequate supply of spare essentials, so as not to jeopardise the personal safety of the reporter, and to ensure uninterrupted communication in the event of any emergency.
  5. On return from especially stressful assignments and dangerous locations, psychological counselling may be required for disaster and conflict reporters in many instances.

From the foregoing discussion, it can be seen that in recent years there has been a dmand for specialists in the various fields of reporting for the media. Conflict and disaster reporting are fields that call for specialised knowledge and training. The concepts of ‘disaster’ and ‘conflict’ are allied to each other, and the term ‘disaster’ can be stretched to include both natural and man-made disasters. Also, reporting on both disaster and conflict requires similar skill sets. However, in the increasingly specialised world of media reporting, the two are usually treated as separate genres.

A disaster is defined as any natural or man-made catastrophe that causes major physical damage or destruction, loss of life and sometimes permanent change to the natural environment. The basic definition of a conflict is an open clash, or an incompatibility of interests between two opposing groups or individuals. At its most extreme form, a conflict can take the form of a battle, or a hostile meeting of opposing military forces in the course of a war.

There are a few main elements of reporting that need to be kept in mind when a journalist goes to a conflict zone or into an area devastated by some disaster, whether man-made or natural. The journalist must internalise the fact that covering a conflict or disaster zone requires a lot of sensitivity and calls for a deep understanding of the various nuances of the situation. A superficial survey of the circumstances is not enough.

There are three stages in which a reporter can play an important role when a disaster strikes: at the stage when the disaster is yet to strike; at the stage when the disaster has struck; and in the aftermath of the disaster.

In conflict reporting, there are a few basic duties that conflict reporters should adhere to at all times while reporting a conflict situation. But in both disaster reporting and conflict reporting, a vital question remains unanswered: how much violence, death and destruction can be written about or shown on television, or broadcast to radio listeners?

It is quite important that we should investigate the dangers of working in hostile and unfriendly environments under the constant threat of danger. A journalist needs to take care of himself or herself while at the same time trying to capture a bold story for those who are not in the same circumstances as he or she is.

Check Also

citi

10 tips for reporting conflict and abuse

What to avoid when reporting conflict and abuse? Reporting conflict and abuse is complex. Often ...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *