Making disaster journalism that cuts through the noise

“Reveal the institutional organs that failed, the human mistakes behind the avoidable deaths. Talk to the ones who had no choice but to stay or leave. Write about the moral challenges faced during calamities.”

In 2021, the world will continue to unravel in pieces, in shards of catastrophes, as it struggles to cope with the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic. The relentless sequence of fires, floods, and hurricanes will blend into a distant, monotonous hum for those of us not directly connected to the disasters, given the depletion of our surge capacities and the current patterns of breaking news coverage.

So what can disaster journalists do to break away from that drone? What questions do we ask? What words can we use that leave their traces as we trudge through the horrors? What imagery works when people become accustomed to photographs of glowing orange skies?

I hope we find new answers to these questions next year. One way that is known but less practiced is to dive deeper and take a long-term view of disasters. Apart from breaking news, report on the calamities in the making and contextualize the risks we face.

Open up the files of catastrophes past and “conduct a social autopsy,” a phrase used by sociologist Eric Klinenberg in his book Heat Wave, which investigates the aftermath of the 1995 Chicago disaster. Reveal the institutional organs that failed, the human mistakes behind the avoidable deaths. Talk to the ones who had no choice but to stay or leave. Write about the moral challenges faced during calamities.

Follow up with those who are accountable for the mismanagement. Trace the environmental histories and colonial legacies of disasters. Uncover the deep scars, such as domestic violence and survivor’s guilt. Go back to the forgotten ground zeroes and report on the abandoned homes and the ghost schools that have propped up as part of the recovery efforts. Investigate the lasting effects, for instance, the impact of mold on respiratory health after hurricanes.

Elaborate on the long-running injustices that have been exposed by disasters. Look at the spillage of past calamities into new ones. Report on resilience and hope — it’s essential to do so — to draw out lessons in reorganization and resourcefulness, keeping in mind extended time frames.

A more experimental way would be to create visceral presentations. As I write these words, what comes to mind is the art project Ai Weiwei built using thousands of backpacks to honor the children who died when schools collapsed in a 2008 earthquake in Sichuan, China. News outlets must think innovatively about how to create a similar emotional impact.

A recent example — though it doesn’t directly fall under the umbrella of natural hazards — is the front page of The New York Times’ Sunday edition designed as a long list of coronavirus victims to mark the death toll in the United States approaching 100,000. Simple yet searing.

Sonali Prasad is an independent journalist and researcher covering science, the environment, and climate change.

In 2021, the world will continue to unravel in pieces, in shards of catastrophes, as it struggles to cope with the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic. The relentless sequence of fires, floods, and hurricanes will blend into a distant, monotonous hum for those of us not directly connected to the disasters, given the depletion of our surge capacities and the current patterns of breaking news coverage.

So what can disaster journalists do to break away from that drone? What questions do we ask? What words can we use that leave their traces as we trudge through the horrors? What imagery works when people become accustomed to photographs of glowing orange skies?

I hope we find new answers to these questions next year. One way that is known but less practiced is to dive deeper and take a long-term view of disasters. Apart from breaking news, report on the calamities in the making and contextualize the risks we face.

Open up the files of catastrophes past and “conduct a social autopsy,” a phrase used by sociologist Eric Klinenberg in his book Heat Wave, which investigates the aftermath of the 1995 Chicago disaster. Reveal the institutional organs that failed, the human mistakes behind the avoidable deaths. Talk to the ones who had no choice but to stay or leave. Write about the moral challenges faced during calamities.

Follow up with those who are accountable for the mismanagement. Trace the environmental histories and colonial legacies of disasters. Uncover the deep scars, such as domestic violence and survivor’s guilt. Go back to the forgotten ground zeroes and report on the abandoned homes and the ghost schools that have propped up as part of the recovery efforts. Investigate the lasting effects, for instance, the impact of mold on respiratory health after hurricanes.

Elaborate on the long-running injustices that have been exposed by disasters. Look at the spillage of past calamities into new ones. Report on resilience and hope — it’s essential to do so — to draw out lessons in reorganization and resourcefulness, keeping in mind extended time frames.

A more experimental way would be to create visceral presentations. As I write these words, what comes to mind is the art project Ai Weiwei built using thousands of backpacks to honor the children who died when schools collapsed in a 2008 earthquake in Sichuan, China. News outlets must think innovatively about how to create a similar emotional impact.

A recent example — though it doesn’t directly fall under the umbrella of natural hazards — is the front page of The New York Times’ Sunday edition designed as a long list of coronavirus victims to mark the death toll in the United States approaching 100,000. Simple yet searing.

Sonali Prasad is an independent journalist and researcher covering science, the environment, and climate change.

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