More ‘super’ typhoons mean more media responsibility

Vantage Point | BusinessWorld

No one can blame practically all Filipinos, not only the residents of Tacloban City and other areas in the Visayas, for being so traumatized by the devastation caused by typhoon Yolanda on Nov. 8 last year that they’ve since been watching every weather disturbance with dread that it could bring on another holocaust.

Some 20 typhoons, some of them powerful enough to leave wide swaths of devastation across the country, do visit the country every year. Filipinos have learned to live with that fact, and even take them — at least the less powerful ones — in stride.

But Yolanda was different. As the most powerful typhoon to ever make landfall on the planet, it killed a possible high of 12,000 people or at least 6,000, destroyed hundreds of millions in property, razed entire cities, brought the economy of the affected areas to a standstill, and savaged entire families. It occurred in the context of what has been described as the “new normal” in weather disturbances as a consequence of climate change: the generation of, among others, more and more powerful typhoons in the Pacific, and typhoons of once unthinkable power that could devastate the Philippines.

The cost in lives lost was immense, but Yolanda also psychologically scarred the survivors, many of them children, with fear so intense some have described it as almost unbearable. Those Filipinos not directly affected by Yolanda, though to a lesser extent, have been infected with the same sense that death by wind and water could come at any time during the typhoon season.

The trauma was evident in how the media covered typhoon Ruby (Hagupit), from its gestation in the Pacific to its approach and progress across the country. In Facebook, fear was the dominant response of social media users when they learned over a week ago that a possible super typhoon was developing in the Pacific a few thousand kilometers from the Philippines. Much of the media gave voice to the rest of the population’s fears, among the first reports over TV network news programs warning that the typhoon could be very, very strong. (“Malakas po ito,” said ABS-CBN’s Ted Failon.)

“Yolanda -like” was how one broadsheet described the approaching typhoon, and “super typhoon” soon came to be a favored adjective in the media. Although not exactly accurate, since Ruby was at its strongest generating no more than 240-kilometers-per-hour winds compared to Yolanda’s 285, and super typhoon not being part of the technical vocabulary of the Philippine weather agency Pagasa, the labels were close enough. But there’s no denying that they did serve to stoke even more intense fear among the population, specially among the residents of the Visayas, across which the typhoon was predicted to pass.

Fear can lead to either paralysis or action. Fear forced many into the evacuation centers, in some cases days before the typhoon struck their communities, while media attention, reflecting as it did the population’s anxieties, led to, this time, early government initiatives to prevent a repeat of the same level of destruction caused by Yolanda.

Media attention was unrelenting, but in some cases not very helpful. The 24-hour coverage some networks launched over the weekend of Dec. 6 to 7 often degenerated into air- and time-killing interviews with local officials focused on what they were doing in terms of how many rubber boats were at their disposal, what relief goods they had, etc., and — after Ruby had left — how many people were in the evacuation centers, whether there was electricity, etc. These reports brought to the national audience a sense of what the communities were going through, but hardly justified days of extended coverage.

What could have justified it was tracking the typhoon not only by covering Pagasa briefings and dutifully repeating which areas were under Typhoon Signal 1, and which in 2 and 3, but even more crucially giving the media audience interpretations and analyses of what the Pagasa announcements meant in terms of what exactly the areas the typhoon was going to affect would bring residents.

That required interviews with sources who could have provided insights into what those details meant for residents on the ground in terms concrete enough to enable people to go beyond abandoning their homes for the evacuation centers. To allay widespread fears, the media could have provided information on such quotidian matters as how does one secure one’s home if it has to be temporarily abandoned? Are there steps one can take to strengthen one’s home’s resistance to high winds and floods? Because most of the interviews that were held tended to be with experts, they tended to focus on the science of weather and storm surge prediction rather than on the practical aspects of survival and recovery.

The “new normal” of more frequent and stronger typhoons has imposed additional responsibilities on the media. These do not include fear-mongering but sober straightforward reporting, providing information to enable affected communities to better prepare for disasters, and in the aftermath to be the population’s reliable advocate for recovery and reconstruction.

Media coverage of the Yolanda devastation is instructive.Without media attention to the imperative of recovery, the habitual government inefficiencies, indifference and lassitude, summed up in the “business as usual” mindset, could only have prevailed, and did during the months that followed Yolanda. Despite the destruction last year, only in the days preceding, as well as during Nov. 8 this year, did the media refocus on the rehabilitation of the Yolanda-affected areas, discovering in the process that it had not proceeded as the victims had hoped for and as most Filipinos thought.

The human costs of disasters in the Philippines have been huge, and to reduce those costs requires the highest levels not only of State and citizen commitment, but the media’s as well. The way relief operations and rehabilitation efforts have been and are planned and implemented should provide both the government and the citizens crucial lessons in how to best survive and prevail over disasters, given the Philippines’ susceptibility not only to typhoons but also to earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, floods, storm surges, rising ocean levels and other disasters. How the rehabilitation and recovery of the areas affected by Ruby are being implemented should be among the Philippine media’s highest coverage, analysis and informational priorities as the country enters, and hopefully survives, the “new normal” of climate change.

Luis V. Teodoro is the deputy director of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility

Twitter: @luisteodoro

Published in Business World
December 11, 2014

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