Tuesday, October 17, 2006

A disaster that there is no disaster?

"Come on darling," the photographer from the News was saying to me as we stood outside in heat that threatened to take the skin off our faces. "You don't want me taking pictures of the celebrity with the kids. You don't want me taking pictures in the hospital. What am I doing here? There's a story to tell love. It's got to be done somehow."
Vernon Briggs the TV producer was making his way up the path.. "There isn't a bloody story that's the bloody truth of it," he bellowed.
"This is a right bloody carry on this is. We can't make an emergency appeal out of this lot. Nothing bloody well wrong with 'em. Crying wolf is all these aid agencies ever do."
"It's not crying wolf," I said. "It could all still happen."
"Not in the next two bloody days it couldn't. If we weren't stuck in the middle of effing nowhere, I'd put a call in London and pull the whole thing now. It's a bloody disaster."
"A disaster you say?" Muhammed one of the camp elders was standing very still. "It is a disaster that there is no disaster?"
-From Cause Celeb by Helen Fielding

This was one of the things that inspired me to start thinking about how the media and aid agencies work together when there is a natural disaster (as well as being fascinated that Helen Fielding wrote this book - a pretty biting satire on the media, aid workers and celebrity endorsements - before Bridget Jones). It's really easy as a journalist to get caught up in wanting the most dramatic pictures, the most dramatic stories. But it's not just the journalists who get caught up.
Remember Sofia Pedro...she was the woman who gave birth up a tree during the 2000 Mozambique floods. International reaction had been slow to the floods....but a strong image like that meant that it went to the top of the media agenda.
In a BBC news online debate (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/africa/1306897.stm), the BBC's World Affairs Correspondent David Shukman pointed out that while Sofia and her baby Rositha were got to safety, given the sheer number of media-chartered helicopters covering the rescues, a few Mozambicans may have been blasted from tree-tops by the force of the downdraft.
But he also said that aid workers should not be so quick to criticise the media for over simplifying. He wrote
One colleague who covered the famine in Ethiopia last year described having trouble opening his hotel-room door because the agencies had left him so many notes inviting him to join THEIR helicopter or Landrover the next day to visit THEIR particular project. They all wanted coverage; in fact they couldn't afford NOT to have coverage; and the result was a little unseemly on their part.
His point - both aid agencies and the media should be examining what they are doing and how they could do it better. And this is what I hope to do in my year at Nuffield.

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