The Ethics of Earthquake Coverage

Whether local or parachuting in, journalists covering the recent Chile quake face ethical, logistical and personal challenges.

The 8.8-magnitude earthquake that cracked the spine of Chile on February 27, 2010 has once again mobilized the global journalism community. Print, broadcast and online journalists in Chile are on the front lines of the coverage. As they did in Port au Prince, crews from large news organizations and a small army of freelance correspondents are converging on Santiago, on Chile's second-largest city Concepción, and on impoverished towns and villages in between to document repercussions of the fifth-largest earthquake in the last century.
Those covering this latest natural disaster face significant ethical, logistical and professional challenges as they tell the story of this latest natural disaster in all its complexity, while respecting the needs and dignity of the victims caught up in the chaos.

The defining theme of early media commentaries has been about how two huge seismic events occurring within six weeks of each other have spawned such vastly different consequences. Casualties in Haiti — an estimated 200,000 dead and more than 1 million displaced, though no one knows for sure — promises to be disproportionally higher than in the more prosperous Chile, many of whose urban infrastructures were engineered to better absorb seismic shock. At the time of this writing, the death toll in Chile is reported to be below 1,000, but it is steadily rising; an estimated 200,000 people have been rendered homeless and officials say 2 million people, mostly poor and dwelling in remote areas closer to the epicenter, will bear the brunt of this tragedy.

American journalist and educator Marc Cooper has deep roots in Chile, which run back to the early 1970s when he was translator for President Salvador Allende. Now that global media are engaged in telling this story, he says they should set aside the false comparisons to Haiti and focus instead on Chile's political and social faultlines which are shifting as starkly as its tectonic plates:

First, this is a full-on catastrophe that would render the social fabric of any society.

Second, Chile is by not the poorest place around but it does have one of the most UNEQUAL economies in the world.  It suffers from the deepest of class and regional divisions with a not so subtle thread of apartheid-like racism laced through the whole thing. And the region hardest hit by the quake is precisely the poorer, darker southern half of the country for whom much of the capital's elite have open scorn.

Immersed in Twitter as I have been for 48 hours, I can say that Chileans in general demonstrated an admirable humane-ness and compassion.  But as soon as the sacking of supermarkets began, the predictable venom comparing the poor to "delinquents" and worse began to sprout (some of that rage expressed by the Good People of Santiago might be better focused on the war criminals and torturers who still populate their golf courses and country clubs).

I don't think anyone is comfortable watching mobs tear apart supermarkets. But no one should be comfortable watching thousands sleeping in the streets and wondering from where they will get any food and water.

The Chilean government has a responsibility to maintain social order. Yet, its deployment of riot police, tear gas, water cannons, army troops and the imposition of dusk to dawn curfews does not seem the best of responses.

I doubt seriously if Chile will now descend into social chaos. People are too busy figuring out where to sleep to go out and riot.

As reports of looting and desperation dominate the early coverage, some foreign correspondents covering the quake arrive still not well-versed in the country's recent political history — from the U.S.-supported coup that overthrew Allende, the country's first elected Marxist president in 1973, to the subsequent military dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet, whose severe human right abuses extended until 1990.

Center-left President Michelle Bachelet, who endured torture as a college student in the Pinochet years, will soon hand over power to her elected successor, conservative billionaire Sebastián Piñera.  How much of this cultural and political context will be woven into the earthquake reports to come?

"Chile is regarded as the most 'first world' country in Latin America, but it's still a country with a great deal of poverty. And the media comparisons with Haiti have done both countries a disservice," says Donna DeCesare, a professor of journalism at the University of Texas who coordinates the Dart Center's activities throughout Latin America. "The people who are most affected here are the poor. And with the political change that's coming to Chile, the big question is what the new government will do for the people of the barrios, who are the most vulnerable."

Tapping Into Local Resources

For foreign journalists, getting to the mountain villages devastated by the quake and seaside towns swept by the resulting tsunami involves finding a reliable fixer, who can provide transportation, translation and help negotiate unknown terrain. Large news organizations generally rely on their own in-country networks to connect with trustworthy support personnel and local stringers to get their crews where they need to go. And if things go wrong — injury, crime, illness — the ethical news organization will stand by a fixer or a stringer just as they would their own salaried reporters and producers.

The relationship between independent journalists and their fixers can be more complicated. It takes some discernment and more than a little luck to land in a chaotic situation and immediately find a reputable and competent fixer with sufficient journalistic, cultural and language skills to understand both the nuances of your questions and your subject's responses. Pooling resources and knowledge with other independent journalists and leveraging the strengths of local media can increase your chances of success.

“The most important thing is to listen,” DeCesare says. “'How do you feel?' is absolutely the wrong thing to ask a person who is stunned and in shock.”

"Partner with a news organization that's local," DeCesare advises. "The local newspaper, the television station. Sometimes you can come in with resources that they don't have — but they have the local knowledge and access to local officials that you lack. I would not just look for local journalists, but also connect with journalism schools, to find a student who is doing good work. Now that the military has taken over security in Concepción, finding someone with military connections would be helpful. If you're dealing with casualties and medical issues, find someone who works at a hospital, who can take you around,  and help you to figure out who to talk to and how things work."

In an ever-changing situation like an earthquake's aftermath, a journalist's eyes and ears must be open to what's developing on the ground. A local can help point journalists to the right place. "An earthquake is a visual story — compelling images are what you need to bring back," DeCesare says. "So it's important to find people who have a sense of the visual, who can take you to where you can get the right 'overview shot,' who can look at a landscape and tell you what has changed, what isn't there any more."

There are some additional, common-sense guidelines when working with local news associates: Once you have ascertained that a fixer has the requisite knowledge, skills and equipment to help you navigate the landscape, negotiate up front the costs and scope of his or her work. Put this in writing. Above all, cultivate a egalitarian attitude with in-country helpers — journalism is a communal act, best performed in an atmosphere of trust and mutual respect.

Buying Your Way In

It's almost inevitable that in some situations, the itchy palm of a bribe-seeker will be extended to a journalist covering a crisis. It's also a fact that under the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act it is illegal for American citizens to offer bribes to public officials in foreign countries.

So harbor no illusions. It's never ethical for journalists to pay for information, access or interviews. A story that relies on a bribe is a story not worth writing. But when money is solicited to expedite something you're legally entitled to, like a visa, just pay it. The important thing about these unavoidably dodgy situations is to be as transparent as possible. When reporting the expense to your editor at home, don't disguise the payment as something else or lump it in with your meals or transportation.  It's less of a bribe than it is a "facilitation payment" that enables you to get the story reported and, in some cases, secure your personal safety.

Interviewing the Vulnerable

Ensuring the dignity of the people you have been dispatched to cover is a serious ethical challenge that applies equally to in-country news gatherers and those who have just arrived on the scene.

Most journalists are trained to deal with the powerful — public officials, people with specialized knowledge or in positions of influence. But how do you get to the truth when you are plunged into a landscape of traumatized and bereaved people?

Before approaching patients in hospital and field clinic settings, get permission from administrators or medical personnel. Think hard about sending back images of grievous wounds or physical indignity. Think hard about how to interview wounded or bereaved children — or whether to speak with them at all — if there is no adult to help them sort out your questions. Think hard about approaching a grieving mother or father, a funeral procession or a graveside service. Don't offer false sympathy or tell victims you understand their suffering. Allow people the space to tell their own stories in their own way. Try to create an authentic and compassionate space in which a conversation can unfold.

"The most important thing is to listen," DeCesare says. " 'How do you feel?' is absolutely the wrong thing to ask a person who is stunned and in shock. It's important to be attentive, to be quiet and to listen ... We can't assume that our purpose is so great that they must respond to us."

Taking Care of Yourself

Witnessing death and devastation on a mass scale has an unavoidable impact. Journalists need to remember that they may have a number of potential stress reactions when they write about particularly stressful topics. Also vulnerable are the editors and producers in the newsroom who process text, video footage and photographs.

"Simply put, a steady diet of graphic and horrifying images or audio can be overwhelming. Psychologists have long recognized vicarious traumatization — the symptoms of traumatic stress or other psychological distress in individuals who absorb toxic levels of horror through the eyes — or camera lenses — of others," Dart Center Executive Director Bruce Shapiro wrote in a recent article on in-country journalists covering the Haiti quake. While the source of distress may be second-hand, the impact is real and sometimes enduring.

However, there are strategies and resources they can use to stay resilient. See the self-care resources to help you cope from the Dart Center website.

Finally, Dart Centre Australasia in Melbourne offers advice to newsroom managers in the aftermath of an exceptionally traumatic assignment.