After an earthquake struck Nepal in April of 2015, the post-disaster media coverage followed a trajectory we'd seen repeated after other earth-shaking events. We put together a template to help a discerning news consumer look for the real story. It's our Breaking News Consumer's Handbook: Tectonic Edition. Brooke speaks with Jonathan M. Katz, who wrote "How Not to Report on an Earthquake" for the New York Times Magazine.
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BOB: From WNYC in New York this is On the Media, I’m Bob Garfield.
BROOKE: And I’m Brooke Gladstone. It’s been two weeks since that horrific earthquake in Nepal. The fact is, the coverage is winding down, following a narrative arc that’s replayed without alteration, whenever the earth convulses.
ABC : Many of Nepal’s ancient temples and cultural gems are in ruins. And on Mt. Everest, an urgent rescue response is underway as marooned climbers struggle to stay alive…
AJAM: A spanish search team has now arrived to help. So far, they’ve only found body parts.
NBC : In Nepal, a miracle in the rubble. A 101 year old man was rescued on saturday. he had been trapped underneath his home for 8 days and reportedly survived on flour and water…
FOX: And devastating new pictures shows the desperate scramble for supplies dropped in one of Nepal’s remote villages.
AJAM: But the biggest threat now is the spread of disease after the earthquake…
A familiar story, but is it the real story? We begin this hour with a new breaking news consumer’s handbook the tectonic edition.
Jonathan Katz was working for the Associated Press in Port Au Prince in January 2010 when an earthquake rocked Haiti, the worst natural disaster in the western hemisphere. After Nepal was struck last month, he was moved to write a piece in the New York Times called “How Not to Report on an Earthquake.” He observed that the first 72 hours are the most important to find survivors - and that’s exactly when journalists and first responders aren’t there.
KATZ: If you go to Haiti and you talk to people who were in the quake zone, everybody knows somebody who was trapped in the rubble, everybody knows somebody who was pulled out. The vast majority of rescue work that's going to be work after a disaster is going to be done by fellow survivors of the disaster. And this is missed in disaster responses both domestically and internationally. I was looking for the highest possible number that I could find for the number of people who were saved by the international organized search and rescue response. And the absolute top highest number that I could possibly find was 211. If they came in and understood actually the lead rescuers in this situation are the actual people who live in these neighborhoods, they would have said you tell us where we need to go. Where are people trapped, and where do you think there actually might still be a chance to save people. And maybe in that case a lot more people could have been saved.
BROOKE: So what is the risk of over reporting these fancy international search and rescue efforts, and under reporting the work the locals do in saving their neighbors?
KATZ: There's a big problem and a massive problem. I just heard a report from Nepal, there was a military officer I think in the US army and he was speaking to the radio reporter and he was telling them that they had search and rescue teams with them. It had been more than a week since the earthquake struck. Obviously if it was somebody in my family or a loved one, of course i would want to move heaven and earth to try to get them out, but realistically it's unlikely that that's going to happen. And so it's frankly sort of a waste of time and money that could be better spent saving people's lives in other ways. That's the big problem. The massive problem is that it reinforces the notion that the people who have gone through an earthquake are basically going to be useless. They need to be shoved out of the way while these much better wiser interventions are brought in from the outside, and that's so the opposite of the way it actually works
BROOKE: Talk to me about the coverage of disease.
KATZ: Of course there are going to be health issues following a disaster, and the most immediate are going to be extremely traumatic injuries: crush injuries, concussions everywhere, and things that are much more complex than that. But we imagine from the outside that there's only gonna be one kind of big medical issue which is going to be the epidemic.
BROOKE: Lack of clean water, that sort of thing? Communicable diseases because they're all crowded together.
KATZ: Right, and then somehow that's going to spark a major epidemic. It almost never happens. There's all kinds of studies that have been written about that you can go back and read them in the Journal of Emerging Infectious Diseases and other places - people go back and they look because they want to know specifically what kinds of epidemics arise after disasters especially after earthquakes and the answer is none.
BROOKE: So, dead bodies.
KATZ: This is something that I've seen misreported over and over and over and over again. This morning there was a piece online at the New Yorker that seemed to imply that the dead bodies could somehow spark an epidemic. It just doesn't happen like that. There's no evidence that a dead body who's been killed by blunt force trauma is going to be any kind of vector for disease.
BROOKE: And one story from NBC news that you called "an absolute f ing trainwreck" was --
KATZ: The headline was "Will Haiti's Hell Come to Nepal After Earthquake." First of all, the cholera epidemic that erupted in Haiti was 9 months after the earthquake, came from Nepal. And they acknowledge that in the story which really makes it make absolutely no sense. It was in a part of the country that was not affected by the earthquake, it spread down a river going in the opposite direction, going away from the area that had been affected by the earthquake. There was a piece in Foreign Policy that talked about this, again, it name checked the fact that cholera was imported into Haiti by UN Peacekeepers, but part of the reason why the epidemic was so bad was because so much infrastructure had been destroyed in the earthquake. No! Unfortunately, there was no water and sanitation to be destroyed in the first place. Try as hard as you can, you can't make the cholera epidemic in Haiti a result of the earthquake. Man, people want to, but you can't, it just doesn't work.
BROOKE: Let me go through a few of these other tropes. You suggest that news consumers regard with skepticism media reports about increased crime and violence in the affected area.
KATZ: Yeah, so when you get to that 72 hour mark and we start having to spin these stories forward, we start looking for okay well what can happen next. We have certain narrative that are already in our minds and frankly most of them are missed, and one of them is the idea that there's going to be an epidemic. The other one is unrest, and unrest is reported in almost always the exact same way that the threat of epidemic stories are reported, which are fears of unrest, signs of looming trouble. The word that you often see in these stories is "desperate". Desperate earthquake survivors. this idea that you have poor desperate people and well intentioned good people who are experts who come in from the outside and they're going to help those people but you never know what the desperate persons' going to do because they're desperate.
BROOKE: words like desperate may set the stage, but you know, you're not suggesting that reporters actually make up stories about crime and violence, are you?
KATZ: No, it's not that the reporters make them up. I think the better cliche phrase is that a hammer finds a nail. I can take you back to my own experience when I was a wire reporter on the ground. You expect for there to be violence. YOu expect for there to be unrest, and you don't want to miss the story. And your editor certainly doesn't want you to miss the story. And frankly viewers expect the story too. So you mount up, you get in your car and you start asking questions, hey has there been any violence, have you heard of any looting, have you heard of any kinds of problems. And especially in a major metropolitan area, a place like Port au Prince, people will say sure there's a problem down there. we heard that maybe there were criminals in this part of the city. And you go there and maybe there's nothing, but maybe there's something.
BROOKE: Are you seeing this in the coverage of the Nepal situation?
KATZ: That is a very interesting question. One major difference in terms of the way the US media cover Haiti compared to the way they cover Nepal and this is unavoidable, we have to talk about it. Is the fact that nearly everybody in Haiti is black. And we cover things that happen to or are being done by black people in a different way than we cover things that are being done by other people including South Asian people who live in Nepal.
BROOKE: Okay, what about the late miracle story.
KATZ: I understand completely why people love these stories. There's so much death, there's so much loss, the historic buildings, the temples and the monuments are gone, and it's just so sad. And people want something that they can hold on to. And frankly you know that that's story going to get a huge response, we know that story's going to go viral. By the way, just to be really cynical about it, another reason why media outlets love late rescue stories is because often times they themselves were late to getting to the disaster zone, and so it's something to cover a couple days later.
BROOKE: By the time they get there the major story's over.
KATZ: But you can still do this story of the person being pulled from the rubble and shouting Hallelujah, but you're talking about maybe one person or two people who are going to be pulled out of the rubble at that late a date, and now you need to spin the story forward. and so you start looking for okay well what are the next problems going to be. And so you start writing the threat stories. What they'll try to do often is grab on to a couple of small examples of each of these things, maybe a couple of people got sick here, or the police shot somebody over there, and from that point on, the coverage is sort of forced into this awkward position of having kind of over promised a follow on disaster that never comes, but if you're in a major metropolitan area, you're talking about millions of people who are now engaged in a very real drama for survival. And it's something that is very important to focus on because when you're talking about the myths of disaster, it can be very easy to be like okay so there isn't going to be unrest, and there probably isn't going to be a famine, so are you telling us that everything's cool? No. Everything is distinctly not cool. Just because there isn't going to be a massive disease outbreak, doesn't mean that you aren't going to possibly see for instance increased incidents of a disease like tuberculosis because people are living in close quarters with one another or if you're in a place like Nepal, where cholera is an endemic disease, some increased cases, or something like that.
BROOKE: So you're saying it could happen, cause they're living in close quarters.
KATZ: No, no. You might see some increased incidence of tuberculosis but you're probably not going to see a massive outbreak of tuberculosis. You might see some children die of diarrheal diseases and you don't even know what they are. And they're not widespread enough for you to even quantify it as being a specific epidemic and that's just one example. In all of these instances, people are going to need to rebuild their lives, they're going to need to rebuild their incomes, find a stable place to live. And we are really bad at that in terms of international response. People don't get that kind of help.
BROOKE: Isn't a signal that the story is over when the journalists lament the long and difficult recovery as they pack up for home?
KATZ: Yeah. And the irony is that that is the story. And that that was the story from the minute that the earthquake struck. And a big part of it is that we were focusing on the wrong things, and we were asking the wrong questions from the very beginning. But the idea that there's panic, that there's desperate, that's a bad narrative. The people who are taking that narrative in response to it. And so you end up with situations where first of all, people just try to box up a bunch of stuff, they just send it. Oh here are a bunch of wool blankets, Haiti. Here's a bunch of hand sanitizer, Nepal. You know, good luck we're all rooting for you. And that causes all kinds of coordination problems, it clogs up the entries of things that might actually be needed. If we're going to be of any use at all it's going to be in helping them take the leadership in their own recovery. We see the images on tv and we imagine the international responders, you know they're the ones they're doing the life saving work, they're the ones who need the support. Whereas we may be conflating totally different things: we may be watching you know firemen from France responding to a disaster and that inspires us to give money to the American Red Cross. When the earthquake struck in Haiti, the American red cross raised 486 million dollars, they had 4 people in Haiti at the time of the earthquake. If people understood that it's the survivors of a disasters who are taking the lead in their own recovery, we're going to start looking to help them directly. this is not an opportunity for us to show how powerful and o'god we are. When we're looking at disasters especially ones that happen in other parts of the world, i think the most important thing that we could do as journalists to communicate is it's not about us.
BROOKE: Jonathan, thank you very much.
KATZ: Thank you.
BROOKE: Jonathan M. Katz is a freelance journalist and author of the book “The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster.”