Covering the Tsunami
Reflection and advice from six international reporters who reported on the Dec. 26, 2004 tsunami (Yulia Supadmo, Indonesia; Mehul Srivastava, USA; Shahanaaz Habib, Malaysia; Shahidul Alam, Bangladesh; Pia Sarkar, USA; Mona Khanna, USA)
News producer—RCTI Television, Indonesia
Two weeks after the tsunami, Yulia Supadmo took a flight back to Jakarta after covering the devastation in Banda Aceh. As the plane rose from the tarmac, she looked through the window at the destruction below—an island had been transformed into a watery mass grave—and she wondered if she had done enough to help the people she had met. She recalls telling a nurse who was seated beside her, “I should not be a journalist. I should be a relief worker.”
For Supadmo, perhaps the worst stress of reporting in Aceh was dealing with the people who would come to her and her crew for help. She had to turn many away, she says. She had to do it to get the work done. It was a challenge, she says, to restrain herself from physically helping aid workers.
Among the people she met was a young boy named Rizal. He followed the crew around everywhere, ate with them and even picked up a few tips on camera work. Supadmo wants to go back and look him up. “When I left Aceh, I felt sorry for him, all his friends were dead and I wondered what he would do when we left. I almost cried,” she says.
The tsunami forced one of Supadmo’s colleagues and his family to evacuate and he later went back with the crew. “Marhiansyah was very quiet and looked into the distance. We had to keep bringing him back and remind him that we were doing a story. We had to keep a watch on him,” Supadmo says. She began to notice changes in her colleague’s work in other ways, as well. When he spoke with officials his tone was bitter because he felt they were not doing enough for the people. “He was cynical and eventually we made him do other stuff and not so any stories,” she says.
Reporter—Dayton Daily News
Mehul Srivastava traveled in the tsunami-hit regions in India and Sri Lanka with photographer Chris Stewart (a fellow Daily News staffer) and a group of doctors from Ohio. Srivastava's jump drive served as a virtual morgue. One of the doctors had stored a number of pictures there—bloated bodies, bodies of 10-year-olds, some even younger, with sand in their mouths, their eyes barely closed—and Srivastava watched picture after picture on his computer screen, trying to help parents identify their dead children.
Eventually, the grief got to him. “There was this woman crying because her husband and child had died a few days after the tsunami and a doctor I was with turned to me and said, this is the sound of one woman crying. On the day of the tsunami there were a thousand women crying. And that was the thing that set me off,” Srivastava says. “Right in the midst of reporting for a story I finally broke down and cried.”
He found that it wasn’t difficult to relate to victims. In India, many of the people affected were middle class. “You walked into refugee camps and they were well-dressed,” Srivastava says. Many of these people lost everything in the tsunami, however, and Srivastava felt the urge to help. “In Talanguta village near Chennai, I was with a translator and I had just spoken to a source and was about to leave. I opened my bag to put my notebook back in. There was food in the bag and the guy saw it. And he had no food,” Srivatava recalls. “How could I not give money to that man?” Srivastava gave the man about 300 rupees. He knew that amount would barely get the man and his family through the week, but it lessened Srivatava’s guilt somewhat.
As Srivastava acknowledges, parachuting in and out of a disaster zone in a matter of days can increase the potential to harm people. And like other journalists in the tsunami zone, Srivastava felt pangs of guilt at prying into private lives of people who had just lost everything. “I realized that when such a thing happens you are kind of intruding and you have a huge sense of guilt,” he says.
At one point, shock kicked in for Srivastava when he got into the car and the driver turned on the air-conditioner, the photographer processed the pictures and he went to the comfort of his hotel room to file his story. “We would never go to the same village again,” he says.
Later, in a first-person piece, Srivastava wrote a eulogy to the children in the photographs, “I realized then what it was that Chris (the photographer) and I were doing here. Nearly 60,000 people died in India and Sri Lanka—the least we could do is bear witness to their suffering.”
Assistant news editor—Star Publications, Malaysia
Shahanaaz Habib has found that she copes quite well amid the stress and strain of covering a disaster. She has trained herself to remain somewhat detached, she says. “I do all right. The adrenaline high and a mad rush for stories keeps me going. I can work non-stop for days that way,” she says. “There are so many stories happening that I really don’t have time to think about it.”
The enormity of the situation only gets to her when she is back in a familiar territory. “For the first five days after I got back, the first thing I thought of when I got up in the morning, and before I went to sleep at night, was the tsunami victims.” Eventually, returning to her family and loved ones helped her return to her regular lifestyle.
Immediately after returning to Malaysia, however, Habib was asked to make a presentation on the tsunami to raise funds for the victims. There she was, hours away from the devastation, living in a posh hotel with chandeliers and great food. The juxtaposition shocked her, but the fact that it was a fundraiser of sorts was her only solace. “It was such a shocker to come out from a devastated area and then plunge into this lavish setting within a day,” Habib says.
Shahidul Alam found that the mechanical processes of his job helped him cope with the trauma that surrounded him in Sri Lanka and India. It was one of the first times he was using digital photography. “I had to upload pictures and this kept me focused on a certain aspect of the job,” he says. “When you do stories you become a different person.”
Alam became attached to a young girl named Shamita, whom he photographed. She had lost her entire family in the tsunami, but was later adopted by another family. “This is a little girl. She is playing and all the things you expect a little girl to do. And then, suddenly, I try to take her near the sea and I look at the fear in her eyes. It made me realize that there is that fear in so many people that will take a long, long time for them to overcome,” Alam says.
He remains attached to the girl. “I am going to find Shamita. I want to find out how she is. I am very concerned about this girl. I want to see that she gets a good education,” he says.
Although many journalists have ethical concerns about giving money or getting involved or intruding in the lives of victims, Alam characterizes these concerns as western concepts. According to him, privacy is not as important in his culture and is certainly not expected in places like Sri Lanka and India where he reported. “These things mold life,” he says. “I am an activist who uses a camera.” This seems to be one of the main differences between reporters from the west and the local reporters who covered the tsunami—a stark contrast in their views of their roles as journalists, emanating from cultural differences. “I approach it as a human being and make no apologies for being involved,” Alam says.
Reporter—San Francisco Chronicle
Pia Sarkar was on vacation in India when the tsunami struck. She got permission from her editors to do a couple of stories and with a translator made her way to the southern peninsula of India.
Later, more than a month after the tsunami, Sarkar was dismayed to see interest in the story waning. “It bothered me not to hear about these people just a few months after the disaster. The relief workers were coming in smaller numbers and the aid was slowing down and they had lost 10,000 people,” she said.
She also found fewer reporters in the far-flung villages in rural Tamil Nadu in India. The villagers’ voices were not making the headlines anymore.
Reporting from this region was hard for her; she did not speak the language and she had to rely completely on her translator to comprehend the intricate nuances of what her sources were telling her. Although she feels she is adept at handling emotional situations, at times it was difficult to keep her composure. When her sources were breaking down it would get to her, she says. Some of the interviewees would cry and tears would well up in Sarkar’s eyes, too. “I had no idea what they were saying but it was clearly hard for them to say it,” she says.
Medical correspondent—KTVT, Dallas
Mona Khanna didn’t notice at first, but looking back, she does feel she may have been aloof and detached upon her return to the United States from Aceh. She stayed away from friends and family and was often in a somber and contemplative mood. Her melancholic disposition wore away only when she decided to go to Aceh again, this time as an aid worker.
Khanna is a practicing medical doctor. She also has a degree from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. She says her medical experience—as an aid worker and as a doctor—helped her cope better with the trauma of reporting under stressful conditions.
“I have been in disaster areas, but usually I treat patients,” she says. She has volunteered in various disaster sites and worked as a medical attendant in war zones. “I have worked in the medical clinic at ground zero and there we treated first responders,” she says.
Her group treated first responders at the World Trade Center site after the September 11 attacks—the engineers, FBI and the firefighters. “They all needed medical aid,” she says.
In Khanna’s view, just as journalists need training as a foreign correspondent, they should have training for disaster coverage, too. In some instances the regular obstacles of being international journalists can just add to the stress.
“They have to realize that they are going to be exposed to situations that they never have been exposed to in their protected cocooned life in the U.S.,” Khanna says. “And they (journalists) have to do some soul-searching and see if they are going to be able to absorb it,” Khanna says. Preparation is the key, she says. However exciting and glamorous these stories are, there is also an element of human tragedy that they have to be able to cope with.
During her three-month stint as an aid worker in Aceh, Khanna produced a few segments for her news station. She also helped victims monetarily. “I gave money in Sri Lanka and Banda Aceh too,” she says. “I took 200 one dollar bills and when I was there I gave out cash.”
Later last year, Khanna reported from New Orleans after hurricanes Katrina and Rita and noticed that cultural nuances were underscored in the ways victims dealt with the situation. “In Sri Lanka and Aceh people were unassuming and submissive they just said it was their kismet (Hindi for fate),” she says. In New Orleans, by contrast, “The people had an attitude of entitlement, and both the situations were tragic in their own sense.”