Saturday, March 05, 2011

Drowning in media indifference

By Nalaka Gunawardene | Himal

Why do movie audiences in this part of the world cheer every time they see alien invaders blow up the White House? For a long time I thought it had something to do with anti-American sentiments; then I heard that many US audiences react the same way. Perhaps some among us get a kick out of seeing overbearing governments in trouble?

That might explain the gleeful tone with which the Colombo media reported the Sri Lankan Parliament being flooded after torrential rains in mid-November. Newspapers and television channels repeatedly showed images of the Parliamentary complex – built three decades ago on a marshland – completely marooned. The hapless people’s representatives were ferried across the expanse by the military, to take part in a brief session to extend Emergency Regulations. The symbolism was inescapable.

When the trapped rainwater engulfed many areas in and around Colombo, thousands of affected people groaned, but no one was really surprised. By now Sri Lankans know this is almost an annual routine. As I sat knee-deep in my own flooded office, I had a strong sense of déjà vu.

It was early June 1992. While Prime Minister Dingiri Banda Wijetunga was away in Rio de Janeiro attending the Earth Summit, Greater Colombo received the heaviest rainfall in living memory: 492 mm, or more than an eighth of its annual rainfall, in a single night. This created a flash flood that cut across all class divides: the city’s most plush residential, diplomatic and business areas were united with shanties in their damage and misery. That was the first time the Japanese-built new Parliamentary complex went under water. The country could not have received a ruder awakening to the urban environmental nightmare it had created.This was also my first close encounter with a disaster: my home was under three feet of water. Yet I was among the luckier ones – I had an upper floor to evacuate to.

Then, as now, the blame game started even before the waters had receded. Eighteen years ago, the flood victims accused irresponsible local government bodies, greedy property developers and incompetent town planning. The country’s media devoted much space and time to discussing the floods of 1992, partly because the waters had directly affected many journalists and some press barons. Not only did ‘spot’ reporting take place on a large scale, but the follow-up coverage went on for months. There were persistent demands by the media ‘to know who should be held responsible for the floods’.

I joined that debate by pointing out that all residents in and around Colombo, many of whom are narrowly focused on their own welfare, shared the blame. Many had either corrupted a corruptible system, or had simply looked away when expediency replaced the due process. As such, I argued at the time, ‘We drowned in our own apathy and indifference’.

As it turned out, the real indifference was yet to come. In December 1993, a much larger flood covered nearly a third of the island. Although it affected twice as many people for a much longer period than the previous year, there was far less media coverage. Most likely, this was because that flood had hit the northern, north-central and eastern provinces, a safe distance away from the capital, where most of the media are based.

Fast forward to the present – and how little things have changed! During the past three months, as the fury of the formidable little girl (La Niña, the global weather anomaly) played havoc on the island, this writer has been struck by the similarly lop-sided coverage in the country’s mainstream print and broadcast media. Urban flooding once again received ample front-page coverage and ‘breaking news’ treatment. Everyone, from cartoonists and editorialists to talk-show hosts and radio DJs, ranted about what was taking place. Yet the much worse flooding, once again in the north, east and centre of the country, received proportionately much less attention. There were a few honourable exceptions, but by and large the 1992-93 disparity was repeated wholesale.

It is not as though communications have not progressed in the intervening period. In fact, the media landscape has changed drastically. From a monopoly of two state broadcasters, today there is a plethora of FM radio and terrestrial TV channels crowding the Lankan airwaves. Mobile phones have driven the country’s tele-density to higher than 90 percent, while Internet access is spreading fast and becoming more affordable, especially through mobile devices. Information (and gossip) now travels at the speed of light. But more delivery channels have not given Sri Lankans greater plurality of information or opinions in the mainstream media, and that is why those living in the country initially heard more about the floods in Brisbane than about the equally horrendous ones in Batticaloa.

Media researchers have long accused the Western and globalised news media of having an implicit ‘hierarchy’ of death and destruction, in terms of how they report disasters in developing countries. But Sri Lanka’s own media’s indifference is equally appalling – the story of a quarter-million displaced people languishing in squalid conditions for weeks on end did not constitute front-page news. A starlet entering hospital after a domestic brawl excites news editors more than thousands of flood-affected provincial people starving while waiting for relief.

Fumbling mediasaurus

One notable difference in the recent flooding was how those outside the mainstream media tried to fill these gaps. For several years, citizen journalists have been bearing witness to unfolding natural and humanitarian tragedies and sharing impressions on blogs, online videos and, more recently, short ‘tweets’. Paid journalists initially scoffed at these unpaid and scattered enthusiasts. Thereafter, they questioned the latter’s credentials and skills to marshal vast volumes of information: What do these minnows know?

The December 2004 tsunami amply demonstrated citizen media’s complementary role. The late author Arthur C Clarke called it a turning point for all media. In 2005, he wrote: ‘Having evolved highly centralised systems of media for half a millennium, we are now returning to a second era of mass media – in the true sense of that term. Blogs, wikis and citizen journalism are all signs of things to come.’

Sanjana Hattotuwa, a leading practitioner of this new wave of people’s journalism and founder editor of, notes: ‘Citizen journalists, flawed as they may be as individuals, are nevertheless tremendously powerful as a group. They have the potential to capture, over the long term, a multiplicity of rich and insightful perspectives on disasters not often covered by the traditional media.’

Without the trappings and inertia of the institutionalised media, citizen journalists are quick to adopt new communication tools and platforms. Some of the first images of the devastating flooding in Batticaloa were posted on Facebook. Tweets with vital updates came from grassroots organisations such as Sarvodaya, which quickly leveraged Twitter and Facebook to raise awareness and solicit flood-relief donations. Local-language websites such as Vikalpa translated key updates into Sinhala.

Covering a geographically distributed disaster is never easy for any media. Most Colombo-centred media groups rely on provincial correspondents to feed their headquarters with information and images. When some were directly affected by the recent floods, media houses found their news feeds suddenly cut off. The more widely distributed citizen journalists, on the other hand, were more robust due to their multiple numbers, locations and technology tools. But by and large many mainstream media organisations failed to join hands with the citizen journalists to improvise for the sake of quality and speed of disaster coverage.

Six years after the tsunami, Sri Lanka’s mainstream media still tries to go it alone. Of course, we do keep seeing feeble attempts by the media companies to co-opt the new media tools. During the recent flooding, for example, an English-language daily’s disaster-related tweets were largely indecipherable: readers had to click through to read the full story on their website. This shows a poor understanding of new media: attaching online appendages to content that is still conceived, produced and distributed in the ‘old media’ mode.

Many mainstream newsrooms also lacked the ability (or, perhaps, interest) to rapidly organise disaster information in user-friendly ways. With floods spread across several provinces, policymakers and relief workers needed to chart out their response plans, yet the static maps that newspapers and TV channels hastily produced were inadequate – and rapidly rendered obsolete. To fill this void, Groundviews created the first – and, to date, only – online maps on the ground conditions, relief work, shelters and weather conditions during both of the most recent incidents of devastating flooding in Sri Lanka.

‘The most informative updates throughout the two waves of flooding came from citizen journalism website and social networks,’ says Hattotuwa. ‘Yet even with numerous examples of how free, relatively easy-to-use web and social-media platforms can enhance reporting and provide context, the mainstream media in Sri Lanka remains incredibly obdurate, believing that old thinking and ossified models of journalism can outlive drastic changes in media consumption and delivery.’

So, what is to be done?

As Sri Lankans brace for more extreme weather events and disasters thanks to the changes in climate, our mainstream media needs to adapt fast to better serve the public interest. We need all our media organisations to be more caring, robust and innovative. To survive the new-media tsunami, media managers must come to terms with the new reality of collaborative, user-involved news generation and consumption. ‘Business as usual’ is hardly an option, even for commercial survival and growth. In Sri Lanka, large sections of the media missed the story on the recent floods – let us hope that they at least will learn its larger lessons, and not let a good crisis go waste.

Nalaka Gunawardene is a science writer in Sri Lanka, and co-edited Communicating Disasters.

© Himal

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