Picture it: you’re in the newsroom and the building starts shaking unexpectedly. There are things falling and crashing on the ground, while furniture and people are being tossed around and it occurs to you that this is indeed an earthquake.  Although panicked, the first instinct for the journalist is to tell the story. 

Natural disasters such as earthquakes, floods, tsunamis and wildfires are becoming more prevalent. The World Meteorological Organization said that the number of disasters has increased by a factor of five over the 50-year period, driven by climate change, more extreme weather and improved reporting. There are early warning signs of a disaster, but they are also often unprecedented. That gives the journalist very little time to think about how they will report on the event. 

Journalists covering the recent earthquakes in Morocco shared their experiences and lessons with IJNet, and three things stand out: 

  1. Safety

Before rushing onto the field, ensure that the place you are going to is safe and not volatile in any way. It also advised that you go with a group, and have a tour guide or expert to accompany you so you are able to safely navigate the scene. In the event another quake strikes, then seek safety as quickly as you can remember to drop, cover and hold on: Drop under a sturdy desk or table and hold on to one leg of the table or desk. Protect your eyes by keeping your head down. 

  1. Have a plan

It is advisable to start learning more about earthquakes and the areas in which  they are prone to happen, and have a plan in place for when it does. 

Wafaa Taouzri, a journalist working at Medi1 Radio in Tangier, told IJNet that the first step they had taken in the newsroom was to contact official government bodies to obtain information on the earthquake’s impact. They then set up a crisis team to relay live, fact-checked information to audiences. The important thing is to work together with others during a disaster for more accurate and seamless reporting. 

  1. Verify verify verify

Natural disasters are scary and create a lot of uncertainty, and this is often the breeding ground for the spread of misinformation and disinformation. We became more aware of it during the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic when people were scared and uncertain: conspiracy theorists and fear mongers would take advantage. In these cases, it’s more important to be right than to be first. Work with other team members to verify the information. Kunda Dixit, editor of the Nepali Times said at the Global Investigative Journalism Conference, that “accurate information should be the first rule of disaster reporting.”  It is your responsibility to verify the content before reporting on it. There are some resources to help you do this while on the field: 

Even in the aftermath of a crisis, you have to be cautious of the information that is being shared. Speaking during the how to investigate disasters at the 9th Global Investigative Journalism Conference (GIJC), experts said that journalists should rely on scientific data when going through information because it helps to analyse and provide solutions and better understanding of situations.

Here are some ways to get around big sets of data, from Global Investigative Journalism Network (GIJN): Basic Data Journalism Tips for Editors

Accountability and watchdog role 

Relief funds coming into a country can very easily go into the wrong hands, as we have learnt from the Covid-19 pandemic as well. So, while reporting journalists should go beyond the crisis and look at the way authorities are managing the disaster.

Take for example what’s happening in Libya following the September 10 flood, when two dams burst above Derna in a storm, unleashing a torrent of water that swept away the centre of the city that claimed thousands of lives, with many still missing.

Authorities orders journalists to leave the area after demonstrators staged a rally and torched the home of the ousted mayor in fury over the authorities’ failure to protect the city from floods. Authorities said this is because there were a large number of journalists and they were coming in the way of rescue teams’ work. 

At its core, we all want answers. 

According to Rowan Philip, a senior reporter at GIJN and who covered the 2000 floods in Mozambique, the 2004 tsunami in Sri Lanka, and the 2010 Haiti earthquake, there are ten crucial questions that journalists need to ask after a natural disaster. 

They are: 

1. Where did the relief money go — and where are the choke points that stop the flow?

2. Was the disaster made worse by human actions — before and after the event?

3. Could the disaster have caused leaks or toxic contamination from nearby sites? 

4. Was the death toll exacerbated by corruption or cronyism? 

5. What does the data say about problems at emergency management agencies, or in disparities in disaster assistance?

6. How can we report on apparent looting and lawlessness among survivors in an ethical way? 

7. What can we learn from the new emergency response players? 

8. What public health threats could be triggered by the initial disaster? 

9. Who is exploiting the disaster? 

10. What are we missing here?

Read the full article here 

As we move forward from a disaster, the experts at GIJC have said that it’s important that journalists keep the story on the national agenda. There will always be information that needs to be fact-checked and authorities to question. Your responsibility is to the public after all. But they say, don’t seek big headlines and always be sensitive to the situation as many people would still be suffering. Instead contribute accurate and factual information about the disaster. 

To keep things going, Moroccan journalists collaborated to create fact-checking platforms, or those dedicated to understanding the earthquake. 

Information is the key to navigating any situation, and it’s the responsibility of the journalist to do that while staying safe. 

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