Through a slanted lens

Judi Conner examines television coverage of disasters

Television was supposed to make us all part of one global village. Those who remember watching live TV pictures of the first moon landing in 1969 may also recall the excitement and promise of the new satellite technology of the time. The world was growing smaller and more manageable. Cries for help were heard almost instantly around the globe. Television could now truly fulfil its public service role, informing people and spreading understanding.

But, 30 years on, where were the cameras when the worst cyclone in living memory hit the coast of India in Orissa in 1999? Most Western domestic TV networks provided little coverage of this disaster, which left more than 10,000 people dead, 2 million homeless and up to 20 million without food or fresh water. Only 5 per cent of news coverage on the three main American channels is now devoted to stories from beyond the United States’ borders.

Big business
Television has become a business, and a highly competitive one. TV channels compete for the highest audiences in order to survive. Even in those countries where the industry was founded as a public service – to provide education and information as well as entertainment – television now follows perceived popular demand.

This has taken its toll on the Western news agenda. Stories must be ‘grabbier’ than ever; visually interesting with short, snappy soundbites; comprehensible to the greatest number of viewers. Celebrities go down well. People in ‘far-away lands’ do not.

Disasters around the world still get covered of course. Indeed, with strong pictures and personal tales of anguish they can be the essence of an arresting news story. But it is the way disasters are covered in developed country media that is disturbing.

For one thing, the coverage of disasters in developing countries is frequently disproportionate to that given to disasters nearer to home. It rarely provides an adequate context to enable viewers to grasp the full picture. This was highlighted in a recent study of British TV coverage, Viewing The World, which I was commissioned to carry out by the United Kingdom Department for International Development (DFID). We found, in a detailed analysis of news reports of the January 1999 Colombian earthquake, that the coverage focused on dramatic descriptions of the damage, of relief efforts and of civil disorder following the disaster. Very few attempts were made to assess the scale of the damage, its impact on people’s lives or the country’s reconstruction needs. Only one account considered the effects of the disaster on the economy.

Such slanting of disaster coverage is alarming because television still helps shape people’s understanding of the world. Repeated surveys in Britain have confirmed that, even in a multi-media age, television is still the public’s foremost provider of information about international affairs.

At the same time, audience research conducted for the study indicated that viewers feel overwhelmed by images of destruction and death in TV reporting of natural disasters. Most blame television for their negative perception of the developing world, where most disasters appear to be located. Viewers are left feeling hopeless, helpless and distanced.

Fairer and more engaging ways must be found of presenting the wider world to Western television audiences. There needs to be a change of cultural climate so that the quality and diversity of TV programmes become as important as the number of viewers watching. With some bold leadership from senior TV managers – plus industry regulation to reinforce television’s public service role – this could certainly happen.

Increasing interest
There are already signs of movement. The question of fair global coverage is currently being debated within the television industry, and has recently featured at three international TV conferences in Europe.

It has also become evident that regulation can help. From 1989 to 1999 the international output of Britain’s Channel 4 fell by 56 per cent. But in 1998 the channel’s remit was revised and strengthened and global issues were included in its central purpose for the first time. Since then the channel has increased its international output, recently announcing that one-third of all its documentary series will be filmed outside the United Kingdom over the following 12 months.

Commercial survival has become the overwhelming concern for Western broadcasters, obscuring concern for planetary survival. The media agenda must be broadened, and disasters like that of Colombia put in their rightful context, if we are to have a television service worthy of the global information society

Judi Conner is a media consultant and former television journalist.

PHOTOGRAPH: Hartmut Schwarzbach/Still Pictures

This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | Learning from disaster | Being prepared | The way forward | Breaking the cycle | Flip-flop to catastrophe | Nature's warnings | At a glance | Competition | Insuring against catastrophe | Recreating sustainability | The legacy of conflict | Ask us, involve us | The poor suffer most | Through a slanted lens

Complementary articles:
Robert Lamb: Hands on (Looking Forward) 1999
David Nostbakken: The future is not what it used to be (The Way Ahead) 1997
Television Trust for the Environment(TVE)