Reporting Natural Disasters

A Haitian-born journalist and media scholar advises educators on how to equip the journalists of the future with the cultural awareness to effectively and sensitively report on natural disasters. 

Editor's Note: In this journalism learning package, University of Washington graduate student Manoucheka Celeste offers guidance in teaching journalism and trauma from a cultural studies perspective. She draws from her experience as a journalist and a media scholar to discuss culturally sensitive reporting of natural disasters, with a focus on the 2010 Haiti earthquake.She begins with key concepts and questions, followed by a discussion of responsible natural disaster coverage, and concludes with suggested classroom exercises and additional resources.

 Key concepts

  • Stereotypes in news narratives
  • Intercultural competency
  • Double injury 
  • Political economy of news
  • Changes in news industry

Discussion questions

  • Why might it be useful to journalists to understand how audiences decode media messages during times of crisis?
  • What are the key responsibilities of a journalist when covering a natural disaster in a cross-cultural situation?
  • Why are economic trends in the news industry relevant to effective coverage of natural disasters? What might journalists and news managers do to mitigate the effects of budgetary cuts on good journalism?
  •  Why are the concepts of historical understanding and critical engagement important when reporting traumatic events? What factors might make it difficult to include accurate historical context in a news story about natural disaster?
  • What kinds of opportunities exist for cross-cultural experiences on your campus? In your community? How might a journalist engage with another community without exploiting it?
  • What are some ways that certain groups – identified by race, gender, ability, sexuality – have been represented in news and entertainment? What common themes emerged in these representations? What examples do you have that challenge these stereotypes?

Crossing Cultural Boundaries to Report Natural Disasters

In December 2004, the massive Indian Ocean tsunami claimed more than 230,000 lives as it swept across Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Thailand and parts of India, leaving behind a path of devastation. In August 2005, Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans, claiming 1,700 lives and driving hundreds of thousands of residents from their homes.  On January 12, 2010, a devastating earthquake devastated Haiti, killing 300,000 and shattering that nation's fragile infrastructure. Weeks later, an 8.8-magnitude quake – one of the strongest ever recorded – hit Chile.

In each case, journalists from around the world joined local news professionals to report a rapidly evolving story to a global audience. Many used Internet technology and social media to bring a faraway story home, enhancing our understanding of the event, enabling us to better understand the issues and interact with those caught up in the tragedy.

Future journalists have much to learn about crossing cultural boundaries and using new technology to tell the story of an unfolding natural disaster. How can we teach students sensitivity and awareness when reporting on people in cultures that may be different from their own?


Cultural Studies and Trauma Journalism

Images of disaster, death, and destruction are powerful. Journalists, photographers and, increasingly, citizen journalists are tasked with providing the public with quick and accurate information as it develops.

In these breaking news scenarios, tight deadlines and the 24-hour news cycle amplify the pressure, as news consumers, especially those with family and friends in the affected areas, hunger for updates. Journalists play a critical role in informing the public, especially in the very early days after these types of events.

Yet we must stop to think about what happens after the stories have been filed, printed, posted, or broadcast. Audiences negotiate and attempt to make sense of what they are consuming and decode the messages based on their own experiences, according to the cultural studies scholars who focus on media.

Stuart Hall, who writes and lectures extensively on media representation, urges us to probe inside and behind messages in his educational film, "Stuart Hall: Representation and the Media." This involves stepping back from the media environment in which we are constantly immersed and deciphering the meanings encoded in messages. 


Lessons from Hurricane Katrina

Scholarly analysis of how disasters are covered provides some insight into the need to avoid further damaging already injured communities. Coverage of Hurricane Katrina is one example of this double-injury. In her analysis of this coverage, Nadia Dawisha, a doctoral candidate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, found among other things, a difference in how African-American and white New Orleans residents were represented in U.S. news.

Dawisha points specifically to the instance in which an African-American person carrying food out of a store was described as a "looter," while a white person doing the same was described in news stories as "finding food."

It's not new to find black people caught up in traumatic events to be represented in news reports as "looters‚" engaged in lawless or violent activity. Rather, it is a part of ongoing history of representations, which can be traced in various media outlets in proportions that are statistically improbable considering the size of this population. Marion Riggs's Emmy Award-winning documentary "Ethnic Notions," used widely in classrooms, provides a historical account of African Americans in U.S. media and helps to conceptualize some of representations we see in today's media. This documentary brings to light stereotypes, which scholars have defined as a way people make sense of complex information quickly.

A stereotype is an oversimplification of groups of people. This oversimplification is a cognitive process that involves beliefs about and expectations of these groups. Stereotypes reinforce the status quo, and restrict diversity of social roles that individuals may hold. Complex information, such as characteristics of diverse groups, is understood and remembered by people who draw upon abstracted knowledge, often unconsciously, based on experience – real or vicarious. Many people use media experiences to organize their thoughts about a concept. Media draw on recognizable stereotypes both as a matter of convenience and in order to convey a point. 

For example, we know what to expect as viewers when we see a "nerd" character on any given television show because the producers and viewers have a shared framework and a simplified way of understanding a certain kind of character. A post-Katrina news account that describes an African American as a "looter," is based on abstracted knowledge and the stereotype of "black people as threatening." This demonstrates one of the key attributes of stereotypes: they are resistant to change.

Critical engagement and historical understanding of how difference is represented need be a part of conversations when news professionals decide how to represent different communities. The future of journalism must include news producers and consumers asking about the implications of the coverage, based on an education that helps both journalists and audiences think critically about what they are reporting and consuming.


Haiti's Earthquake: Portraying Life and Death

One of the most visible trends in disaster coverage after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and Hurricane Katrina was the increasingly graphic nature of stories. Often, audiences are exposed to images of destruction, suffering and death without the tools to navigate or deconstruct the images. This was the case for the coverage of the Haiti earthquake.

For people who knew little about the country and its people, and even for those who had some exposure, the  images presented a powerful framework for future interactions and exposure. From the Seattle Times to the New York Times, a constant flow of images from Haiti made its way to audiences all over the United States and around the world. Time magazine's January 12 special issue featured photos taken days after the earthquake. In one photo, the feet of corpses are poking out from the sheets that cover them and in others we see injured children.

Time also published a booklet, "Haiti: Tragedy and Hope," with a share of the proceeds benefiting Haitian relief efforts, according to the cover. This document includes numerous photos of corpses, including one picture of dead bodies being bulldozed into a mass grave. Time was not alone its decision to show corpses during the days following the earthquake, but one thing that these corpses in Haiti, the Pacific, and New Orleans have in common is that they are the bodies of people of color.

In the Dart Center documentary, "Covering Columbine," journalists struggled to make sense of the 1999 high school massacre while making decisions about how to cover it. This was particularly challenging for reporters who lived in the community. They were careful in deciding which images were shown. (The body of a dead student made it into one of the local newspapers accidentally.) The local journalists were critical of the national news teams that swept in and created sensationalized and detached stories. 

The Changing Media Industry

The media industry has been defined and redefined by change, technological and otherwise. Since the late 1990s, if not earlier, organizations have been responding to changes in technology that have altered the way people consume media. Newspapers have been affected most visibly; news bureaus, from regional to international, have been closed, as have many newspapers, as consumers and advertisers have changed where they spend their money and get their news.

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer closed in early 2009 after 146 years, making this large city a one-newspaper town (though the Seattle P-I has continued to publish an online edition). Faced with large-scale news stories such as natural disasters, news organizations are often working on a limited budget and without correspondents who know something about different regions of the world or speak local languages.

While foreign bureaus do not necessarily guarantee culturally sensitive articles, bureau reporters are generally knowledgeable of the places they cover. Before the earthquake, few major news organizations maintained bureaus in Haiti or routinely dispatched reporters there. The relatively small numbers of local Haitian journalists in place to do definitive local reporting meant that most visiting news teams who did the bulk of the reporting arrived with little knowledge of the place, people or culture. The cultural or historical background they provided was largely recycled, uncritical and unexamined. "The poorest country in the Western hemisphere‚" was a statement that seemed to be on replay, along with brief and oversimplified accounts of Haiti's political and economic history. Yet, it is the nuances that make the story interesting and unpredictable.

For example, some news reporters, particularly on television, expressed surprise that Haitians were not being violent while waiting for medical care and food days after the earthquake. Somehow the country's complicated history of civil unrest and protest, most often a response to political and governmental issues, were conflated and the expectation was that it would apply to a natural disaster. This is a case of misinformation built on simplistic previous news coverage.

The lack of depth in international coverage leaves audiences at a disadvantage. Future journalists should be trained to engage with the histories of places from various perspectives. They should be experiencing different cultures – not just visiting, but experiencing – and learn to be self-reflexive throughout the process of news gathering in the absence of living in the communities they cover.


Making Connections in the Classroom and Beyond

Colleges and universities are identifying intercultural competency as key to their students' success, making them more competitive in various industries.

Study abroad and exchange programs continue to flourish, taking students to all corners of the world. Other programs focus on helping students connect to the diverse communities in their own cities.

While not every student will emerge from these programs with an increased understanding of cultures, these experiences can be powerful. Although there is the threat of exploiting communities in order to teach students about difference, groups of students gain a sense of how they are connected to the rest of the world. Others become committed to social justice and equity in various arenas based on these experiences.

Students do not necessarily need to traverse the globe to learn about different cultures, particularly in relationship to themselves. Few jobs allow people to experience different cultures the way that journalism does. The journalist goes on the journey, whether it is covering a religious event or a court case, and reports to readers and viewers. In few other fields is cultural competency more important, if only because of audience size and impact.

In classes, students can begin by getting to know their classmates beyond the basics. In my classroom, we use discussions and activities to learn about different life experiences and cultural expectations, in addition to the more common exchanges such as food and dress. Without using the students who embody difference as examples, it is possible to organize classrooms as places of mutual sharing where all students have something to contribute. People are from different countries, regions, social classes, and gender and sexuality identities, all of which have different cultures. All of the identities can be used to build each others' cultural competence.

Beyond the classroom, future journalists can and should have continued engagement with communities other than their own, not only to gain information, but to gain perspective.  Once in the field, particularly during a disaster, journalists can think about how they can get support from local media institutions, again to add perspective and to help connect to experts.

In the coverage about of Haiti's earthquake, we did not see many Haitians or people of Haitian descent quoted as experts, except perhaps for musician Wyclef Jean. This was a missed opportunity. Local interpreters and guides can also be useful in adding depth to stories, recognizing that they will offer you a certain point of view. Still, there is no replacement for linguistic competence. It is challenging to watch news coverage from a foreign country with a reporting staff that does not know the local language.

This lack of foreign-language education is a broader educational issue, but the impact is present nonetheless. Not having a person on a news team who speaks, understands, or has ever heard the local language presents formidable challenges in reporting news, as we saw most explicitly in the broadcast coverage of the Haiti earthquake. It limits the kind of information that can be learned, access to a variety of sources who could enrich the story, and depends heavily on the selected few who have the means and access to learning English.


Teaching Exercise 1: Rewriting the Story

Audiences are rarely privy to the many decisions that go into gathering and reporting news. These decisions are often made even more quickly during disasters when reporters, editors, publishers have very little time to deliberate. This exercise will give students the opportunity to simulate this process and allow them to think through journalistic best practices and their own values in informing the decisions they make.

Directions for students

Choose one of the more recent disasters (2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, earthquakes in Haiti or Chile in 2010). Choose one article (from a major newspaper or clip from broadcast news, if possible) to re-write or reproduce. Paying attention to your audience and assuming that the people you are covering will read the article or see your story, choose what to keep, change, etc. Choose photos that you think help illustrate your story; photos can include any of the many found online. Once you are finished with your story, present it and compare your work with a group of two or three others.

Discussion Questions

  • What important factors informed the decisions that you made?
  • How did you decide which images were important to show your audiences? What guidelines did you use?
  • What is the purpose of the images you chose to include in the story?
  • Which images did you struggle with? Why?
  • Did you include images of people in vulnerable positions (nude, injured, grieving, dying, dead)? Why or why not?
  • In this exercise, you assume the people you covered would have access to your story. How, if at all, did this influence your decisions?
  • Based on your experience with this activity, what recommendation would you make to reporters and editors in covering disasters?

Additional Discussion Questions

  • How have media historically represented people who are part of racial, ethnic, gendered and sexual minorities?
  • How do U.S. media represent people outside of the United States? What are differences or similarities in how places (United States., Europe) are represented versus others (the Pacific, the Caribbean, Africa)?
  • What are some possible implications of these representations?


Teaching Exercise 2: Choosing the Day's Top News

Dr. Meg Spratt, director of Dart Center West at the University of Washington, has used an editorial decision-making exercise focusing on coverage the day after the December 26, 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. In this exercise, the class is divided into groups of four or five, told that they are editors of a medium-sized United States daily newspaper, and are given the task of choosing the front page art and copy for their December 27, 2004 edition. 

Each group is given a contact sheet of two to three dozen news photographs in thumbnail format along with captions, and a list of 20 to 30 news stories, each with a short summary, that were available 24 hours after the hurricane. These are actual photographs and news stories can be drawn from online news sources, such as Getty Images, Reuters Pictures or the Associated Press (as long as thumbnails photos with watermarks are used for classroom purposes only, there's no cost or copyright issue).

The "editors" must work together within a specified time to choose the front-page photographs and news stories, as well as several photographs and articles for inside pages. An editor-in-chief is assigned in each group to break ties and keep track of the issues raised and the reasoning behind the decisions.

After the groups make their choices, the class comes back together to compare and discuss the decisions.

Discussion questions

  • What important factors informed the decisions that you made?
  • How did you decide which images were important to show your audiences? What guidelines did you use in choosing these?
  • What is the purpose of the images and articles you chose to run on page 1?
  • Which images did you struggle with? Why?
  • Did you include images of people in vulnerable positions (nude, injured, grieving, dying, dead)? Why or why not?
  • Would your choices have been different if you were working for a newspaper based in the Tsunami region? Why or why not?


Bibliography and Additional Readings

General Media Education

Images that Injure: Pictorial Stereotypes in the Media (2003 and 2011), P.M. Lester and S. D. Ross (Eds.), Praeger.

Gender, Race, and Class in Media: A Text-Reader, (2003 and 2010) G. Dines & J. M. Humez (Eds.), Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.

Ethnic Notions, a documentary by Marlon Riggs, California Newsreel, 1987.

Covering Columbine, a Dart Center documentary by Meg Moritz of the University of Colorado at Boulder, School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

Haiti Background

The Agronomist. A 2003 documentary film which chronicles the life of Jean Dominique, one of Haiti's best-known journalists. He was murdered in 2000 and is survived by his wife, journalist Michele Montas.

Poto Mitan: "Haitian Women, Pillars of the Global Economy." A 2009 documentary film about Haiti by Haitians, narrated by Edwidge Danticat. Through five Haitian women's compelling lives, Poto Mitan gives an insider perspective on globalization, Haiti's contemporary political/economic crisis and the resilient women challenging this system. A discussion guide is included.

Celeste, M. (2010, January 26). Disturbing media images of Haiti earthquake aftermath tell only part of the story, Op-ed, Seattle Times.