By Will Henley
When faced with a crisis, what makes the media resort to condescending, patronising, cliched and predictable coverage? Why do broadcasters fall into the trap of arriving too late and leaving too early?
These questions were raised at last week’s Commonwealth Broadcasting Association conference in Brisbane by Australian TV news reporter Yalda Hakim, who won plaudits for her coverage of the Libyan conflict from the Tunisian border for SBS world affairs programme Dateline.
“Although for audiences, issues dealing with refugees and internally displaced people in camps can be a turn off, we still have a responsibility to report and understand the source of the problems, even when they are no longer making headlines,” she said.
“It’s easy to zoom in on and show a close-up of a child eating their last bit of breadcrumb, or a stretched out hand reaching for aid, but to actually give them an identity and know why and how they came to be in that situation is a completely different story.”
As Hakim surmised after reporting on frantic scenes of migrant workers clambering for food, shelter and passage home, even the most well-meaning of journalists can be constrained in their attempt to reveal the wider context to a crisis by the perception that it is somewhat superfluous, or even distasteful, to get the fuller picture.
Yet this attitude that journalists should hold back because audiences are disinterested or disenchanted by disaster, undoubtedly held by some executives and editors, received a debunking at the CBA conference between 22 and 25 April.
The four-day event presided over by CBA Secretary-General Sally-Ann Wilson under the theme ‘Media Leadership in Crisis, Disaster and Emergency’, brought together senior managers, news editors and reporters from Canada, Jamaica, Ghana, Pakistan, Tonga, and beyond, with organisations such as the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility, Unicef and Tourism Queensland.
Rather than ascribe to the theory of public disengagement with the news, speaker after speaker – from BBC Global News director Peter Horrocks to Samoa Quality Broadcasting Corporation managing director Faiesea Lei Sam-Matafeo – attested that when catastrophe strikes audiences in fact increasingly turn to broadcasters, through social media, the web and 24-hour news TV, as well traditional media such as radio and print.
In his keynote presentation, Hubert Lacroix, president of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (pictured), recounted how his network’s flagship news channel, CBC News, embraced Twitter to cover a devastating hurricane that hit Newfoundland, on the east coast of the country in September 2010.
“It was the worst day they had seen in the history of Newfoundland. Bridges, homes, cars, were destroyed,” said Lacroix. “Communities had to be evacuated by boat, the military was deployed. For us it was a big mess – and we didn’t have anyone close to the outlying areas where the damage was done.”
For CBC, a decision to trust the audience paid off handsomely. “Everyone in Newfoundland – from the military to local residents – started tweeting in,” he said of the response. “Our online website had 600,000 hits to the news page that day – which is about what we would get in a full week.”
Initiatives between international and local broadcasters to use platforms such as mobile phones and Facebook are also helping to tease out content from the public, according to Mike McClusky, chief executive of Radio Australia.
“Everywhere in every community this growth [of social media] is taking place,” added McClusky, who is also acting director of ABC International, which sponsored the conference. “It is almost a growth which is exponential.”
“It doesn’t matter if the community is from Australia, whether it’s from PNG [Papua New Guinea] or from the Cook Islands. The community is helping to tell the story and provide the information.”
But even a ‘turned-on’ audience offers up its own conundrums for the media, especially at times of disaster, concluded Lacroix. “In a situation where so much of our content is provided for by our audience, how do we maintain journalistic integrity?
“How do we make what differentiates us still the reference?”
“[Beyond] Twitter and Facebook friends, healthy societies are actually stitched together and enriched by fine crafted story-telling, by fearless and selfless investigative journalists, by publicly owned and publicly minded public service broadcasters,” he continued.
“If we are to bridge the cultural, the ethnic and the political gaps that divide us, if we are going to build cohesive, integrated and harmonious societies then the need for a dedicated space to congregate, to tell our stories, to share our common experiences, and to host independent political debate has never been greater.”
“There are few other vehicles available to this task, and none as well suited as public broadcasters.”
More information on the CBA Brisbane conference is available here: http://brisbane.cba.org.uk/