Reporting on Tragedies

by Lucy Blomfiled

September 11th. The War in Iraq. The Asian Tsunami. Hurricane Katrina. The Earthquake in Pakistan. How should monumental and devastating events be reported? How can we, as ordinary people, understand these events?

News Accuracy in Disaster Zones

The reports of atrocities in the Convention Center in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina were reported by many media organizations -- some adopting "a breathless tone…in (their) lead news stories." 1 Even the Mayor of New Orleans, Ray Nagin, went on the Oprah Winfrey TV Show, and gave examples of outrageous acts of violence. Later, these reports were found to be extreme exaggerations.

In Sago, West Virginia, in January of this year, it was reported that 12 coal miners who had been trapped 260 feet underground for 36 hours were alive. The hopeful news was not true. Only one of the trapped miners survived.

It is difficult to find the truth during, and immediately after, cataclysmic events. Rumors circulate. Reporters are working in tense, unreal situations. Vital communication is hampered by overwhelming technical problems -- inoperable phones and computers, etc. Transportation in and out of the area may be impossible. Stories often cannot be corroborated. Shouldn't responsible news organizations state that some of their information cannot (at that time) be verified?

"Media inaccuracies" do have "consequences in (a) disaster zone." 2 They can cause people and rescue groups to make the wrong decisions and cause further risk. Wrong information can undermine the struggle to keep morale up and maintain order. 3

Local Reporters: A Purpose Greater Than Telling the Story

Some of the best journalism comes from reporters not just flown in to cover a disaster, or even "embedded" reporters (who are part of the scene), but rather from individuals who have lived in the affected areas. They understand the history, the social and political makeup of the region, and can explain the tragedy and its consequences. A recent example is the work of The New Orleans Times-Picayune newspaper.

The New Orleans Times-Picayune's Editor, Jim Amoss, stated that as Hurricane Katrina struck, "We had every much at stake as our readers." The paper had a duel role: to cover the story, and to help heal the city's soul. When your "community, livelihood, everything that is familiar to you is at stake…is destroyed, (it) changes your view of reporting the news." As the National Media camped out in the French Quarter, and reported that the worst was over, "some Picayune reporters fanned out into their city, to see for themselves first hand." The reporters realized that "we had not dodged the bullet…that a key levee had broken." With floodwaters rising, the newspaper's staff rode in delivery trucks toward Baton Rouge. Sixteen stayed in New Orleans to report the story. The paper continued to publish its on-line newspaper: Later in the week, they put out a small print paper that was trucked to shelters in Houston, Baton Rouge, etc. and delivered free. The Times-Picayune "helped shape the nation's picture of what as really happening" in New Orleans. "The Times-Picayune became essential to us," said Loyola University Communications Professor Larry Lorenz. 4

The Times-Picayune recently received The Pulitzer Prize for Journalism in Public Service for "their valorous and heroic coverage of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath." The Picayune also received the award for Breaking News Reporting "despite desperate conditions for the city and the newspaper." 5

The Stories and Words of Ordinary People: Iraq -- The Earthquake in Pakistan -- The Tsunami

The stories and words of ordinary people help us to grasp monumental events.

Jamie Tarabay is a reporter for National Public Radio in Iraq. One of her reports described the events in the West Baghdad neighborhood of Amirya. Here there are daily sectarian killings, residents gathering arms, new militias forming. People are afraid to leave their homes, and no one is safe. Ms. Tarabay interviewed a man who had a generator. When blackouts came, he gave electricity to his neighbors -- even if they could not afford to pay. He was killed 12 hours after the interview. The gunmen left him dying -- face down in the rain. The killing was witnessed by children, and by his own daughter. People are afraid to offer help to people in need, or even to pick up bodies of their neighbors. An Iraqi man said, "(A) man lying in the street -- people passed by, and I was amazed. Their hearts have become hard…" 6

Soutik Biswas writes for the BBC News. In his article, "Villagers' Endless Wait for Relief," he writes about the Earthquake in Pakistan and Abdul Gafoor.

"Every morning, Abdul Gafoor buries his grief and treks three hours along a treacherous mountain path to a relief camp in Tangdar in Indian-administered Kashmir, in the hope of getting a roof for his home. The 8 October earthquake destroyed his house and killed his three-year-old daughter, six-month-old son and 18-year-old sister. Mr. Gafoor simply has not found time to grieve as he sets out from his devastated village of Bahadurkot to the army camp in Chhamkot to search for a roof to protect his wife and parents after spending freezing nights out in the open. He waits all day in the cold, hoping for a tent -- so far there has been no tent in sight, though he's managed to get four blankets and some tea. `I haven't slept for the past week. I've lost my house, children and have no utensils, water, fire, nothing at all. There's no hope and dignity left in my life. I am just asking for a tent," he says. 7

The following are words from a Tsunami survivor in Sri Lanka - from the BBC World Service Website.

"There were only 16 houses in my neighborhood, all built close to the sea. We had (a) wonderful community. All of us knew each other and we lived and played together. We never fought or envied our neighbors. I often played cricket on the beach with my friends in the neighborhood. We always helped each other in times of need. Now our community is destroyed. I don't think we can recreate this place anywhere else." 8

Sounds, Pictures, and Human Interest Stories

Sounds (not sound-bites) give us further information about tragedies. Two examples -- both from radio programs: Hearing a BBC Reporter describe what was happening in Ramallah on the West Bank - AS he was running for his life made it very real.

The agonized cries of US soldiers and insurgents in a Baghdad Military hospital in a radio program emphasized the horror of war for everyone. 9

The following are examples of thousands-of-words in pictures:

Unusual or even humorous events paint poignant moments also. An illustration is the story of mules in Pakistan. "Nine days after the killer quake struck Kashmir and parts of Northern Pakistan, the army mobilized its animal transport units (ATU's), or what's left of them, to reach inaccessible areas -- sometimes without any human assistance." 10 "Like everyone else in the affected areas, a large number of these mules were wiped out by the quake. But those that have survived have been pressed into service for the relief effort."11 "Literally, they can go where no man or machine can." 12 "A fully loaded mule can carry up to 7kg and walk 26km without resting…(they) can walk non-stop for seven to eight hours." 13 "And having traveled to a particular route over a period of five to six months, many can find their way from one camp to the next without human assistance." 14

Responsible, Compassionate Journalists

New Orleans Times-Picayune's veteran photographer, Ted Jackson, stayed in New Orleans even as the flood waters rose. Paddling in a rowboat, he saw a man on a bridge surrounded by water. Mr. Jackson raised his camera. The man held up his arms as if to say, "You're going to shoot my picture, and not come save me?" Mr. Jackson, said "(It was in these) gut-wrenching moments…when I made a decision…if I couldn't save people, I couldn't shoot their picture either." He went on to help rescue people, and take hundreds of pictures of desperation and courage. 15

How many news organizations share this philosophy? Frequently, ratings and obligations to shareholders are now more important than responsible, compassionate public service.

Reporting Resulting in Action

Journalists can make us read or listen or stop what we are doing…but what motivates us to act in a more decisive way? What writing causes us to write letters or demonstrate in marches, to send money or food or tents to desperate situations? What causes us to leave a job in a Western country and go to help in a developing one? What writing causes governments to act -- or people to cooperate? Can writing cause virtue to come out of disaster?

Journalism can compel people to act. It is inspired writing that shows immeasurable grief, and the gravity of an impossible situation. It makes the "world grasp the stakes."16

Websites, Blogs, smaller news organizations -- what will their contributions be in the years to come re: global responsibility? Can they be more effective than large organizations in causing individuals to act?

The Pakistan Earthquake is an example: "He (a hospital find-raiser from Lahore) and other volunteers credited Pakistan's growing independent news media, particularly several new private cable television stations, with producing vivid coverage that motivated them to act. They questioned whether the state-run media, which enjoyed a monopoly until several years ago, would have disclosed the scope of the calamity." 17 "In what some Pakistanis are calling the greatest display of national unity in their country's 58-year history, thousands of volunteers from across the country spontaneously collected vast amounts of food, clothing and medicine and rushed it to northern Pakistan after the severe earthquake of Oct. 8." 18

Virtue Out of Tragedies

Responsible, compassionate journalists will help the world to understand the great tragedies. They will tell the stories of ordinary people, and show the value of their lives. Such writers are not pundits -- they have no need to become the story. They say with humility, "I just want to (write) my stories." 19

Their writing will challenge the world to act responsibly and compassionately, so that out of tragedy, virtue can prevail.


1, 2, 3. LosAngeles Times, "Katrina Takes a Toll on Truth, News Accuracy", Susannah Rosenblatt & James Rainey, 09/27/05.

4. 15. On line Newhour, "Paper Struggles to Tell New Orleans Story," Jeffrey Brown, 03/27/06

5. The New York Times, "Pulitzer Prizes for Journalism, 4/18/06

6.National Public Radio, All Things Considered, "Sectarian Violence Stirs Neighborhood, Militias," by Jamie Tarabay, 4/7/06.

7.BBC News, "Villagers' Endless Wait for Relief," by Soutik Biswas, 10/17/05

8.BBC World Service,, "Community Crushed," 01/09/05.

9.National Public Radio, "Baghdad Military Hospital Treats Soldiers, Insurgents," by John Hendren, 03/23/06.

10,11,12,13,14. BBC News,, Beasts Ease Burden of Quake Victims, by Aamer Ahmed Khan, 10/19/05.

16.New York Times, "For Earthquake Relief Workers, a Race Against Winter," by David Rohde, 01/08/05.

17.18. New York Times, "Pakistanis Unite to Aid Victims of Quake," by David Rohde, 10/22/05

19. C-Span, "Questions and Answers," Susan Schmidt, Reporter, Washington Post, 04/19/06.

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