The ethics for disaster coverage extend beyond journalists to entire newsrooms

An edited version of this article was first published in The Express Tribune on Oct 20, 2013.

Islamabad – Four days after what is considered to be the second deadliest air disaster in Pakistan’s aviation history, 17 Pakistani news channels received show-cause notices in the mail.

The notices, issued by the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA), demanded an explanation from the channels for airing “live, unedited footage” from the crash site of Bhoja Air Flight-213 on April 20, 2012.

All 127 people on board the flight died in the crash and some of the live telecasts, according to PEMRA, contained gory images including shots of dead bodies.

It was not the first time the Pakistani media had been reprimanded, either by an official regulatory agency or through public criticism, for setting up a media circus around a man-made disaster. The 2010 Airblue Flight-202 crash in the Margalla Hills was perhaps a worse case of disaster reporting, with overzealous news organizations trying to beat each other in breaking news.

Some communications instructors and media practitioners also claim that for a country that is devastated regularly by natural disasters — Pakistan has suffered from floods of varying intensity each year since 2010 and two major earthquakes since 2005 — local media organizations have failed to generate a debate on disaster risk reduction.

“The media are not fundamentally related to providing rescue services but through informed reporting, the media can push the narrative for disaster management and risk reduction,” said Dr Ashraf Khan, who heads the Mass Communications Department at Bahauddin Zakariya University in Multan.

The media’s response to natural and man-made disasters seems to have created an advocacy push from the academia for revisiting journalism ethics, and building capacity for specialized disaster coverage, in Pakistani newsrooms. At the same time, the idea to train journalism students in disaster reporting is also gaining momentum, most noticeably with a move to introduce a uniform, national curriculum on disaster reporting at Pakistani universities.

Khan, who is the Secretary of the Higher Education Commission’s National Curriculum Revision Committee for Mass Communications, has been closely associated with this move, which is spearheaded by the Society for Alternative Media and Research (SAMAR), a nongovernmental organisation.

“The idea behind this curriculum is to teach journalism students how to report on both natural and man-made disasters,” he said. “At the same time, we want the curriculum to help students learn to identify disaster hazards while focusing on disaster management.”

A draft of the curriculum was finalized at an academic conference organised by SAMAR in August, Khan said. It now awaits approval from the commission.

While the committee has recommended the curriculum to be introduced as an “elective” subject at some universities as a start, disaster reporting is already being taught at some Pakistani universities.

At the National University for Sciences and Technology (NUST) in Islamabad, for example, a course on “conflict and disaster reporting” is mandatory for Mass Communication students, said Dr Najma Sadiq.

Sadiq, an Assistant Professor of NUST’s Mass Communication department, said disaster coverage is tricky because it takes an “opposite” approach from the traditional concepts of objectivity and detachment taught at Pakistani journalism schools.

“Unless you identify with the victim, you won’t be able to strongly communicate the issue and address the policy and preparedness concerns,” she said. “Here journalists covering disasters need to set their priorities and preferably think as a human first rather than as a journalist.”

Empathy and ethics, journalism instructors who spoke to The Express Tribune said, are essential in disaster coverage.

“When reporters treat aggrieved parties of a disaster, such as flood victims as a subject, then the ethics are thrown out of the window,” Khan said. “The affectees must be treated with empathy.”

Pakistani journalists, he said, forget the “intended and unintended consequences of their stories” when reporting on disasters.

Khan’s concern chimes with the Systematic Moral Analysis framework proposed by American media ethicists Deni Elliott and David Ozar. According to the framework, journalists should determine if there actions are ethically permitted or prohibited by considering whether the harm caused by their professional work is justified or not.

For working Pakistani journalists, Sadiq prescribed sensitization trainings not just for reporters but also editors. Because she said unless the “gatekeepers” support an “ethical culture” in the newsrooms, a trained reporter would not be able to make a difference.

Media ethics in the “during disaster” phase have been made a part of the draft curriculum, Khan said. The draft also includes definitions of disaster-related terminology, field-reporting checklists, pre- and post-disaster coverage tips and cases studies of disasters that had occurred in Pakistan in the past.

Learning from the last part is most important, Sadiq said.

“Whenever we should talk about such courses, we should focus on creating indigenous models and developing our own guidelines and limits based on our media scenario and requirements,” she said. “Localization is important.”

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