After the deluge

Published October 3, 2022
The writer is a political and integrity risk analyst.
The writer is a political and integrity risk analyst.

BARELY weeks have passed since Pakistan `[declared an emergency][1]`, and the floods have slipped out of the headlines. Many people are yet to receive emergency relief or medical attention, and yet the news cycle has moved on. The media is filled with talks of bugs and leaks, but there are few references to disease-bearing mosquitoes hovering over stagnant floodwater, or lake breaches to save villages.

The speed with which our attention is being diverted away from the floods begs the question: what does good media coverage of a climate disaster look like? The topic is set to become a key concern as climate change-related disasters become the norm.

At present, the media is better at covering the disaster event and its short-term impact than the longer-term developments and ramifications. Ample guidance on this is available, and it is increasingly heeded more often than not: keep journalists safe; facilitate information dissemination from the state and disaster management agencies; coordinate news reportage with emergency relief efforts; keep information clear, accurate, timely.

Journalists have demonstrated a growing understanding of how to treat those affected by the disaster, deploying sensitivity and empathy, moderating coverage of children, and seeking not to report deaths before families or local communities have been informed.

What does good media coverage of a climate disaster entail?

There is also increasing awareness of how the mainstream media should use disaster-related social media content in its reportage: acknowledge social media posts as primary sources, particularly for on-the-ground updates, but also fact-check thoroughly.

Our media community’s learnings along these lines, and access to guidance on disaster coverage, are invaluable. In recent weeks, brave journalists have provided updates from the flood-affected areas, and have often been the only source of information about the scale of the disaster — particularly the lack of any response — in remote areas. But this experience and energy is limited to the disaster event.

What should the media do now? How should it pivot from telling the story of Pakistan’s floods as they unfolded to helping inform policy changes in their wake? How can the media sustain its reportage of — and public interest in — a disaster that will be so prolonged, whose ramifications will be so intense that they are likely to forever alter the weft of Pakistan’s economy and society?

For starters, the media community must recognise this responsibility. The shift from reportage to policy-shaping means moving beyond chronicling events to thinking holistically and unpacking the structural drivers for those events.

Read: Floods and photo ops

To this end, media houses should establish dedicated print sections or special broadcast programmes committed to providing ongoing, thoughtful coverage of the floods. This may not seem like an obvious route to high ratings but it speaks to the core role of the media: accountability. It is time for our press to start tracking the relief and rehabilitation efforts. What’s the tally for government expenditure on the flood response? How much foreign aid has flowed in? Where has it been disbursed? To what end?

Media outlets should also establish dedicated teams comprising a range of expertise from climate experts to crime reporters, economists to agriculturalists. The floods are an all-encompassing disaster, and their physical impact and the economic and political response to them must be covered holistically. In the years to come, everything from food costs to urban development to domestic militancy will find a driver in this year’s floods. The news we consume must connect those dots to build the full picture.

To do this well, mainstream outlets should rely on — and where needed, revitalise — local media. The regional language TV stations of Sindh and Balochistan were reporting on the alarming scale of flooding well before the mainstream media, and far in advance of the emergency declaration. They will continue to be best placed to monitor developments in the affected areas, and must be funded and supported to carry out this critical mission.

Indeed, inclusion must be a central concern of ongoing media coverage of the floods. With a disaster so immense, it’s important that the experiences of all flood affectees — whether identified by location, ethnolinguistic identities, political affiliations, gender, class, etc — is documented, analysed and tracked. Historic media biases in favour of cities, our largest province, and certain state institutions must be overcome.

And through it all, media outlets must defend the critical voices. Remember Gadani, the journalist who was arrested for reporting on the anti-Hindu bias in aid access? There can be more like him if Pakistan is to learn anything from this horrifying disaster and build back better. But most importantly, the media must not let this story drop. How can we move on when it has barely begun?

The writer is a political and integrity risk analyst.

Twitter: @humayusuf

Published in Dawn, October 3rd, 2022

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