To the disasters that have struck the Philippines this year, the latest being typhoon “Yolanda” (international name: Haiyan), the Philippine media have responded not only with regular, often by-the-hour reports, but also with the background material needed to enable their audiences to better understand why disasters happen and how to prepare for them.
Even before the advent of the rainy season, which Filipinos correctly identify with typhoons, floods, landslides and other disasters, the major broadcast networks and broadsheets were already watching the weather. As the country’s long rainy season began and deepened, they devoted significant amounts of time and space to reports on the progress of storms and typhoons and their potential and actual impact on the communities.
The Bohol-Cebu earthquake of Oct. 15 tested the Philippine media’s capacity to report on the casualties with restraint and without provoking mass hysteria. It wasn’t strictly the media’s doing. It was the cancellation of flights to those two provinces in the days immediately following the earthquake that inadvertently helped.
The major networks’ inability to immediately send news teams to Bohol and Cebu did prevent the repetition of the usual on-the-scene “human interest,” high-decibel interviews with the kin of victims and even with the victims themselves that in the past had been distinguished by gross insensitivity to grief and suffering. (Past examples include some field reporters’ habit of thrusting a microphone into the faces of the grieving relatives of disaster victims while cameramen regaled audiences with teary-eyed close-ups, and asking them how they felt — and even interviews with people half-buried in the rubble of collapsed buildings.)
In a departure from the past habits of rattling off early casualty figures without the warning that they were incomplete, this time the TV networks restrained themselves from immediately announcing that so many had died, period. Equally evident was the rarity of reports on rescue operations seamlessly joined with such opinions, disheartening to anxious relatives, as that those efforts were bound to fail.
Some networks and broadsheets also provided background material to explain the extent of the damage the Bohol-Cebu earthquake had caused and why. Others took the time to do specials on the vulnerability to earthquakes of Philippine cities including metro Manila, and raised alarm bells warning the public and government on the imperative to review the building code and retrofit vulnerable structures.
Because of its geographical location (it sits on the Pacific “Ring of Fire” and is directly in the path of Pacific-generated storms) and the flawed and even non-existent environmental policies of the governments that have ruled it, the Philippines is among the most disaster prone countries in the world.
But as the entire country should realize by now, it is not only during the rainy months of July to October when typhoons, floods, and landslides decimate entire communities, although the devastating 7.2 magnitude earthquake that struck the provinces of Bohol and Cebu occurred during the same season.
Come the rainy season, some of the biggest media organizations also launch disaster relief and even rescue operations — and make sure that their publics learn about it, through, naturally, their own capacities for disseminating the information.
Some Philippine media organizations provide scholarships to poor and deserving students, serve breakfast to needy schoolchildren, and even help citizens patch up their torn and leaking roofs in the aftermath of torrential rains and typhoons. Some of these involvements are year ‘round affairs, while those having to do with disasters are seasonal.
Some observers object, not to these activities themselves, but to the self-serving publicity the media organizations involved take so much pleasure in disseminating through their own broadcast facilities. But the beneficiaries couldn’t care less, because they need all the help they can get.
The self-publicity aside, there is nothing wrong with media organizations’ providing relief goods to stricken communities, organizing rescue teams, providing scholarships, or patching roofs and serving breakfast. But these are only additional responsibilities some media organizations have assumed in the context of the needs of poor communities and government inability to provide for all.
The media’s main responsibilities are still those of presenting the news as accurately, as fairly and as completely as possible, and providing the commentary and analysis that will help their audiences gain a better understanding of the events around them including the floods, landslides, earthquakes and the many other disasters Filipino flesh is heir to.
In disaster-prone Philippines, discharging that particular responsibility has mostly been in the form of providing information on the imminence of weather disturbances, the communities they’re likely to affect, and the measures they need to take to prevent both casualties as well as damage to livelihood, the economy, and property.
But the responsibility of providing meaningful information also includes reminding their audiences that, whatever the season, and as the year 2013 has amply demonstrated, there is in the Philippines the ever-present possibility of disasters striking any part of the country.
The news media can provide the Filipino public, on a regular basis and throughout the year, the information, now available from the scientific community, on the impact of climate change, the fault lines that make many parts of the country susceptible to earthquakes, what local governments as well as the national administration is doing to enhance the communities’ and the country’s preparedness, etc. in furtherance of the need to reduce the cost in casualties and property losses of the disasters that regularly strike the country.
The particularities of the Philippines have already compelled the press and media to take over such responsibilities as undertaking relief and rescue operations, calling the attention of government agencies to their lapses, and even using the airwaves to prod officials to act on such citizen grievances as uncollected garbage and rutted streets, in addition to the inherent media responsibility of providing information and analysis.
To these must be added that of keeping a watchful eye out, on a year ‘round basis, for the disasters that in the age of climate change and ever intensifying storms, a country that also sits on the Pacific Ring of Fire is particularly prone to. The disaster watch is no longer a seasonal, July to October media responsibility.
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Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro)
Published in Business World
November 7, 2013