Featured image courtesy Sri Lanka Red Cross
The media have a significant role to play in times of natural disasters in terms of responsible and ethical coverage. However, electronic media coverage of the floods and landslides in some parts of Sri Lanka in late May 2017 came under heavy criticism on social media. Criticism was mainly directed at a group of privately-owned media channels for “misusing” the catastrophe as a way of “marketing” their brand image. Some channels were also criticised for sensationalist and insensitive coverage of the tragedy. These criticisms left many wondering what the role of media should be during natural disasters. This article discusses the role of the media in the context of natural disasters and analyses the way some privately-owned Sinhala media channels reported recent natural disasters.
Media as a conduit
During a disaster, the media play a crucial role as an information broker and a conduit of information in the affected region during the response and recovery phase. The media are expected to give accurate, professional, comprehensive and timely data when there are injuries and fatalities involved. In the case of the recent floods and landslides, almost every privately-owned media channel visited the affected areas to provide updates on the incident. Information on how many were affected, the rescue efforts by the armed forces, and where victims were taken for temporary shelter were duly provided. However, instead of providing impartial information, the main focus of some privately-owned TV channels was disseminating information on aid distribution carried out by their own channels. These attempts to boost their brand image in a time of crisis were criticised as unethical. In addition, some have questioned if the media’s role should be that of an aid distributor.
Media as an aid distributor
Aid distribution through media institutions has been a topic of debate from time to time. Some argue that the media’s role is not to provide aid relief but to provide accurate and reliable information in times of natural disasters. Yet in the past, media platforms have been used to provide aid to victims in times of need. For example, in the aftermath of landslides in Aranayake in 2016, ineffective state intervention to meet the needs of victims created a vacuum that social media users came forward to fill. These individuals organised themselves on Facebook to co-ordinate relief provision to victims. Similarly, when state intervention was inadequate in May this year, media institutions stepped in to fill the void. Although they carried out relief efforts that benefited victims, the media’s role as an aid distributor becomes questionable if they exploit airtime to promote their own brand image. As airwaves are considered public property, it is questionable when frequencies are used to boost a media institution’s brand image during a natural disaster.
In the meantime, some channels seemed to have created a media spectacle by using war rhetoric to describe relief efforts. The Sinhala term maanushiya meheyuma (humanitarian operation) was used to refer to some of the aid relief efforts carried out by some privately-owned channels (e.g. sahana yaathra kriyaanwithaya/maanushiya meheyuma/janahada meheyuma). Additionally, the term kriyaanwithaya (“operation”) used for military operations was used to refer to some of the aid distribution campaigns. Using war rhetoric to describe these aid relief efforts tend to make these efforts look more like a media spectacle. Once again, this raises the question as to whether it is appropriate or ethical to use frequencies that are a public right to promote such narrow interests during a national calamity.
Information being selectively shared?
Although the media have a role to play in providing information during disasters, the role of the media as a conduit becomes problematic if media institutions share information selectively. Such selective sharing of information is due to the competition between media institutions to promote their efforts in aid distribution. If adequate information is not shared on aid distribution centres – particularly those run by the state and charitable institutions – serious challenges could emerge with respect to effective aid distribution. For example, potential aid contributors and beneficiaries would only receive partial information on how to contribute or receive aid. The media also have a role to act as an arena that shows how various actors play out their roles and influence the framing of disaster events. Accordingly, the media can act as a platform where critical information regarding relief and aid from the government, organised groups, humanitarian agencies and other sources are shared. This is where some of the media channels seem to have fallen short of expectations, as they did not share information on the government’s distribution of aid.
The media play a crucial role during natural disasters. It acts as a conduit of and platform for information during the response and recovery phases of natural disasters. On the one hand, some may argue that the media do not need to get involved in aid distribution in times of natural calamities. On the other hand, it could be argued that media can contribute to aid distribution, especially in the face of ineffective aid distribution on the part of the state. If the media is to contribute to aid distribution in times of natural disasters, it should be undertaken ethically in a way that does not misuse airwaves. It should not be an attempt to boost the brand image of a certain channel. Instead, the media can act not just as an information broker but as a platform through which information is shared for the benefit of the public. In this context, broadcasters and journalists must be educated on disaster journalism to ensure accurate and responsible reporting in future.
Deepanjalie Abeywardana heads Media Research at Verité Research, which publishes The Media Analysis, a weekly analysis of the Sinhala press in Sri Lanka. She is contactable at [email protected]
 Fleming, R.S. (2013), Emergency Incident Media Coverage
 https://nalakagunawardene.com/2017/06/02/disasters-media-response-%E0%B6%B8%E0%B7%8F%E0%B6%B0%E0%B7%8A%E2%80%8D%E0%B6%BA-%E0%B6%B8%E0%B7%96%E0%B6%BD%E0%B7%92%E0%B6%9A-%E0%B7%80%E0%B6%9C%E0%B6%9A%E0%B7%93%E0%B6%B8%E0%B7%8A-%E0%B6%85/ ;
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