Covering the Tsunami

In recent years, journalists have become more aware of the emotional aspects of the stories they cover, particularly in the aftermath of tragedy. Nowadays, says David Loyn, the BBC's developing world correspondent, "We get alongside people; we have sympathy with them; we empathise with them." A Frontline Club discussion.

In recent years, journalists have become more aware of the emotional aspects of the stories they cover, particularly in the aftermath of tragedy. Nowadays, says David Loyn, the BBC's developing world correspondent, "We get alongside people; we have sympathy with them; we empathise with them."

This approach has led to better coverage of tragedy and disaster, and it allows the audience to reach a fuller understanding of the experience of victims and survivors. But it can come at a cost to journalists. Loyn, who covered the tsunami aftermath in Indonesia, questions whether such emotional engagement is a good thing after all. "I would make a plea for disengaged journalism," he says. "We need to keep ourselves intact. We're faced with daily horror and a thousand dilemmas."

Speaking to a group of journalists, mental health professionals and aid workers during a recent discussion at the Frontline Club in London, Loyn described the scale of destruction he found in Aceh. "The BBC took over a house-which turned out to be a brothel, actually-in Aceh," Loyn said. "You saw Andrew North's pictures of the way that bodies were coming out of the mud"—photos taken by North, the BBC's Kabul correspondent, were shown before the Frontline discussion began—"One day as they were going out to the car, just before I arrived, they realised that there was a baby in the rubbish outside the front of the house. Now, what do you do with a dead baby if it's in the rubbish? As it turned out they left it to be burnt in the fire. Everybody in the house was seared by that experience."

The overwhelming number of people affected by the Tsunami meant that engaging personally with individual survivors was difficult. "I've never been anywhere like it," he said. "I've covered several earthquakes and it is easily the worst thing I've ever seen happen to a community anywhere. Nobody there was left untouched. Everybody you met had lost somebody or had had some experience during the Tsunami itself. Now all of us as individuals want to help the individual in the place that we are, and all of us do occasionally take the wounded soldier to the hospital or help an individual. But if you've got a city where there is that much effect, then actually remaining disengaged is quite a good thing. It's unprofessional to help everybody."

The advantage of "disengaged reporting," Loyn said, is that it allows "the story to tell itself." He described an experience reporting in Uganda last year: "I was reporting on the child soldiers being brought out of the bush in this dreadful war in Uganda. The sight of child soldiers fresh, as it were, from the bush coming in to a rehabilitation camp where they were greeted and welcomed by reforming child soldiers was too much for me. I had to go behind the barn and weep for a while. I would have been useless if I'd been weeping on television but sometimes you have to take it away and then come back and report the story."

A shoulder to cry on

Loyn noted a controversial report by BBC correspondent Ben Brown, who Loyn referred to as "the apotheosis of the disengaged reporter." In the report, Brown appeared on an Aceh beach, walking alongside a woman who had lost her husband and four children in the tsunami. As Brown spoke with her through an off-camera interpreter, she started to weep and put her head on Brown's shoulder. Brown, looking slightly uncomfortable, put his arm around her and carried on filming the segment. "Should he have carried on doing what he did?" Loyn asked, speaking at the Frontline Club. "Should he have pushed her off? Should he have not used the footage afterwards?"

"I'd argue that I like to see that engagement," CNN's Nick Wrenn said. "The Ben Brown incident really brought it home to me—just the raw emotion of it. And it is an emotional experience, and I think sometimes you have to engage. To me that was one of the most powerful packages that I saw out of all the broadcasters."

Laura Conrad, of Save the Children, also approved of Brown's report. "You saw Ben Brown's piece then and the woman was clearly distressed," Conrad said. "But she had some understanding of who Ben Brown was and what she was asking him for."

However, Conrad noted that what is okay for adults is not necessarily appropriate for children. "At one point, with Ben Brown and with another BBC World Service radio reporter, I did have to step in as they were continually pressing children on what their experiences of the Tsunami was," she said. "So I'm all for engagement, I'm all for showing the distress, that's really important, but there are limits. And for children there has to be really appropriate engagement."

Terrible scenes

"Before the Tsunami, we knew quite a lot of reporters in Banda Aceh, particularly those who were helping us cover the Separatist Movement there," said Menuk Suwondo, the head of BBC Indonesian Service. "So when the Tsunami happened, we didn't know the magnitude of the disaster, and our first instinct was trying to get hold of those people. But of course, until the fourth day we didn't realise that, actually, none of them were alive. I've never experienced covering something so bad that so affected the whole team."

Priyath Liyanage, head of the BBC Sinhala section, was in Colombo, Sri Lanka, when the tsunami hit: "I was totally in shock and didn't do much work because we were looking for people we knew." Liyanage spoke about the story of "Baby 81." "It is a classic example of the facts not getting in the way of the good story because—there's no story at all," Liyanage said. "The Baby 81 story was a non-story right from the beginning. But what happened was that only one couple, who were the parents, actually came up to take the baby as parents. All the other couples offered to look after the baby because it was such a wonderful lucky baby, so they wanted to have him.

"But one of the agencies got the story, saying eight couples are claiming the baby as its biological parents. Because of the media pressure, the DNA was ordered by the judge who, before that, had actually handed the baby to the couple. But because of the media frenzy it became a big world story, nobody wanted to know the truth. Even within the BBC we were trying to get the story right saying, 'Well, this is what happened but,' . it was such a good story, why spoil it? That was the attitude; that happens all the time. And that is a real tragedy for journalism. I think it's a really good example for journalism training. Everybody knew, journalists on the ground, we knew by the second day that the story was a non-story but nobody wanted to hear anything."

Jonathan Steele, of The Guardian, was also in Sri Lanka—on vacation visiting family—when the tsunami struck. "On the second day, the morning after, I was in a little place called Panadura where the mortuary of the hospital was completely overcome and they only had refrigerators for about eight bodies and the other bodies were just lying on the grass," Steele said. "And you had these terrible scenes where people were coming either knowing that their child, or husband or wife was there but they hadn't yet seen them because the bodies had been swept away. They'd just been told that the bodies had been brought to the mortuary and they had to come and identify them and the Police were sitting there and very correctly producing death certificates and so on.

"Or, in some cases people were coming not knowing for sure whether their loved one might be lying there. They suddenly get the shock of discovering that, yes indeed, they are there. It was really quite a traumatic—if I can use that word—experience to be in that small group of people, perhaps a hundred people and there were about 40 bodies lying there and people would come and then go and so on."

'Get back to normal!'

In the early days and weeks after a disaster such as the tsunami, formal psychological interventions with survivors are less valuable than attending to basic physical needs. Bill Yule, a clinical psychologist who traveled to Sri Lanka after the tsunami with the UK-Sri Lanka Trauma Group, said that, when dealing with the trauma of children, instead of trauma counseling (which carries the risk of retraumatizing the children), the best advice is: "Get back to normal! Get the schools up and running as soon as possible even if that meant not in the school buildings; even if that meant without much by the way of equipment."

Yule also emphasized "the need is for accurate information and then needing to coordinate the offers of help"—needs that the news media can help meet. He noted that Sri Lanka did not have a national plan to deal with a disaster of that scale. "I wish they'd read the Lancet on the fourth of December, just a few weeks beforehand," Yule said. "A marvellous chapter there by R.F. Mollica and colleagues on Mental Health in Complex Emergencies, advising what was needed to be done; what they should have on the shelf ready to put into action, what training was needed. It wasn't there so what you had were a small number of highly qualified mental health professionals used to dealing in either drug therapy or individual detailed therapy, faced with thousands of people and frankly, not skilled and not knowing what to do."