Arun Karki: Reporting Without a Home
After a devastating earthquake upended Nepal in April, video journalist Arun Karki and his family were left homeless. Against his family’s wishes, Karki headed straight to his office at Nepal Television News where, for the next few months, he scrubbed through thousands of hours of graphic footage, producing reports on the quake’s aftermath. Karki shared his experiences with the Dart Center, and offered tips for journalists covering natural disasters around the globe.
I thought it was the end. The apocalypse.
I was with my wife on the ground floor of our house when everything started to shake. It was around noon and that first shock lasted 56 long seconds.
I had no idea what was going on. We didn’t have time to pull ourselves out. Through the window I saw my neighbors’ houses fall, one after another.
But my wife and I were safe, Our house didn’t collapse on us. We were lucky.
Four hours of aftershocks beat down on my community, and I couldn’t stop thinking of my family and friends. I wasn’t able to receive news from anyone – no updates about damage, injuries or lives lost. The power was out, mobile signals were incredibly weak and the networks were completely congested.
My family didn’t want me to go into the office that evening, but I rushed to meet my colleagues and we worked through the night.
Motivated by our responsibilities, we did our work, and I tried my best to be resilient. I hoped that at some point the tremors would stop and things would return to normal. Those who made it to the office were sent out to report on the ground. As a result I took care of the post-production work by myself. Because of the continuous tremors, I had to run out of the office building more than 100 times during that first night. It’s a strange feeling - running away from an edit booth and hoping it’s still there when you get back.
Meanwhile, my family and I were left homeless. Returning to our house wasn’t an option. We tried sleeping outside but falling asleep was difficult: we didn’t have tents, and for nine days there was no electricity in the area.
For months, the tremors continued. Rubble and debris on either side of the main street served as a continuous reminder of what had happened, and how little was being done to rebuild. Every night, after long hours of looking at footage of the wreckage, I snaked through the debris on my motorcycle and arrived to meet my family at a makeshift shelter. We tried to sleep under the heavy rain, high-speed winds and continuous tremors.
In such difficult conditions, I couldn’t help but log more hours at the office. I was on duty seven days a week. My job was to coordinate with correspondents from 14 hard hit regions throughout Nepal and produce stories about earthquake victims and relief attempts.
I previewed all the raw footage, which was invariably filled with images of the dead and injured. After hours of continuous editing, it became hard for me to see anything at all.
Constant rumors circulating about Nepal’s seismic risk prevented about half of the Nepal Television (NTV) news staff from returning home. For a month, they stayed inside the NTV office building with their families.
I tried to stay optimistic. Many times I coaxed myself out from a deep well of frustration and desperation. All this while telling my colleagues we would rise again.
I invested myself in my work. It gave me a strong sense of purpose. After a month of sleepless nights, I completed a documentary with my chief producer Shivani Thapa for the Nepali government, which was recently screened at an international meeting in Kathmandu.
In making the documentary, and struggling to work through a disaster that affected me in a profoundly personal way, I put together a list of tips for journalists covering the aftermath of this disaster and others around the globe:
FACT CHECKING IS VITAL
Journalists should always verify information with trusted sources before publication, and avoid chasing rumors at all costs. In Nepal, some online and broadcast media seemed to be entirely consumed by the rising death toll, and in constant competition to break updates about the number of dead and injured. As a result, fact checking often fell by the wayside, and incorrect or misleading information was perpetuated in the quest to be first.
There was also a huge discrepancy in data regarding the magnitude of the major earthquake and aftershocks – the National Seismological Center said one thing and the International USGS Center another. Some local media outlets did not crosscheck their data, and reported that another massive earthquake was on the horizon. They interviewed geologists and astrologers, but also quoted self-described oracles and fortune-tellers, contributing to a growing sense of fear. In another instance, a radio journalist said that the [first major] “earthquake caused half of a building in Kathmandu to collapse” when in fact the building was intact.
Be careful when collecting user-generated content. There were many examples of fake text, images and video footage. For example, many saw and shared the collapse of the historical monument “Dharara” on YouTube. Those videos quickly went viral, and distracted from fact-based reporting and relief efforts.
After reading, listening and watching these reports, I had a very difficult time getting a good night’s sleep. This affected my work, which was already difficult since I was logging long hours for so many consecutive days. Though we in the newsroom understood that many outlets were publishing misleading information, we felt discouraged.
NATURAL DISASTERS ARE OFTEN UNPREDICTABLE – BE PREPARED
Journalists should always be ready when natural disaster strikes. Take the time to learn how to manage your emotions and anxieties before a trauma situation presents itself so that you are ready to carry out impartial, unbiased news reporting. Disaster reporting often requires long hours – make sure you have enough food, water and other supplies to get you through.
YOUR PHYSICAL SAFETY SHOULD BE YOUR FIRST PRIORITY
Some journalists went straight for the hardest hit zones before the powerful tremors had stopped, without first putting on helmets and other protective gear. Many did not understand that their health, life and other medical insurances were not guaranteed by the state.
DO NOT SENSATIONALIZE
It’s easy to blame the government. Avoid that simple narrative. Instead, describe real situations and the actual problems people are facing on the ground.
It’s important to write about how government, relief agencies and the general public can cope and overcome the next big challenge. In this case, the media focused on aftermath and death tolls, which is easy to do. Dig deeper. Producing new content is not like producing things in factories. Journalists should not create or contribute to hoaxes – they should challenge, question and analyze.
SHARE YOUR EMOTIONS
With supervisors, colleagues, friends and whoever else will listen. You are not in this alone. Many of those in my newsroom did not show up to work for a few days because they were directly impacted by the earthquake. Others refused to go to zones affected by the earthquake because they did not want to see what had happened to the homes of their friends and relatives. Going through something like this can help you understand your critical role as a professional journalist, and sharing your experiences can help you get through it. Figure out what your newsroom will provide in terms of physical safety and psychological help, and avail yourself of these resources.
AVOID PUBLISHING GRAPHIC AND DISTURBING CONTENT
During post-production I had to watch many hours of raw video footage, which was traumatizing. Some said that watching distressing content online and on TV exacerbated the trauma and left them feeling desperate and frustrated. In Kathmandu, a few of the TV stations shut down their transmission after the earthquake because of property damage and power outages, but those that were broadcasting did not offer trigger warnings of graphic content to come.
REMEMBER THAT STORIES OF RESILIENCY CAN CONTRIBUTE TO A MORE HOPEFUL AND PRODUCTIVE ATMOSPHERE
Share survival tips and success stories. Do not only focus on the causes of disaster and conflicting statements about the level of seismic risk. Instead, show people the ways in which they can help others, and help things return to normal. Show examples of how this is happening.
DO NOT CRITICIZE THE WORK OF YOUR COLLEAGUES
While criticism among colleagues is common, times of disaster often encourage people to work together. Learn from colleagues’ mistakes, help one another overcome shared challenges and support peers during difficult times. Challenge yourself. Be your own first editor. Double and triple check your facts. If your newsroom, government and other authority figures cannot be supportive, stay motivated, stay focused and be proactive.
SOMETIMES HUMOR IS RELIEF
After an initial period of shock, people started posting humorous things about earthquakes on Facebook, which helped to mitigate the stress, even for just a few minutes.