Christchurch: Media Scrum

The trouble with most first-time experiences, is the necessity of hindsight and reflection to see all the ways you could have done things differently, what you have learned and how you can be a better person as a result. Like I said in Christchurch: We Are Blessed; this is New Zealand’s first experience of dealing with, responding to and reporting a national disaster of this scale. So for media outlets, we are pushing into new territories and having to learn on the run. As such, the dynamics of our news screens have changed almost each day – as committed journos get tired and as hope fades.

But this is a critical opportunity to make vital learnings in our role as broadcasters and news agents, whether we work in corporate comms or behind newspaper desks, news cameras or on blogs and in social.

I’m anxious that we choose sensible, fact-driven journalism with appropriate spaces for commentary over the sensationalist, tabloid, bleed it leads style of disaster broadcasting that doesn’t fit within our culture and disregards the fact we are all so closely connected to one another.

Here are my few thoughts so far:

  1. We have to choose now, with the benefit of hindsight, what kind of reporting is best for our people, our nation & the rest of the world as we are in the midst of chaos.
    It’s been mentioned to me a couple of times, the sharp differences between the facts-only, minute by minute reporting of the BBC during the London bombings and other international incidents occurring now throughout the Middle East and the acutely detailed, human angle focused reports filling our extended news coverage (reducing from revolving news broadcasts earlier).

    Finding the balance is key, between the necessary Civil Defense reports and press conference broadcasts and the now seemingly endless repetition of images of destruction, despairing faces, families who are still waiting or just beginning the mourn the loss of their loved ones. There is a place for stories of hope & survival but these tempered with the achingly slow incremental updates on the death toll are tortuous in some aspects.

  2. Further to that, the relative size of our nation suggests that noone is unaffected by this tragedy, therefore what impact to the national psyche does the ongoing broadcast of it’s loss have?
    The broadcast and interviews with Phil Keoghan of the Amazing Race have been particularly genius and hopeful, reminding NZers too, that part of the vital pathway to recovery is keeping the main thing in focus. However, for parents of young children and even teenagers, it’s important to begin assessing how much time and impact the ongoing consumption of those media images and stories is going to take. The focus of our news media now needs to be on the practical steps that are being made and that can be made towards recovery on a personal, community, regional and national level.
  3. Because we are all so closely related, we have to acknowledge that objectivity is hard to find, therefore we need to construct our broadcast policies in ways that reflect our preparation for such things. We are all hurting too much, there is no distance of separation. Faces of people I know, streets I’ve walked fill my screen.
    I have personal relationships with several media directly involved in reporting from Christchurch from all the major channels and peripheral relationships with a number of others. At this time, no one wants to critique or show anyone up, because it’s one of those times that we all stand together. But we also have to be truthful – our lack of objectivity brought on by heartfelt compassion, exhaustion and gut-wrenching heartbreak on a personal and national level – can lead to anyone having a bad day at work aka John Campbell’s interview and subsequent apology to Ken Ring. And that’s what I believe it was, a bad day at work in the midst of a media scrum we haven’t seen the likes of before.
  4. I observed yesterday, and another friend mentioned it today – that even the Opposition have had to choose their words carefully in this crisis. Politically hamstrung.
    Phil Goff (who is a lovely man, I’m sure) is dancing around questions being asked of him in interviews, because in crisis mode as we are, the positive roll-on impact for leadership in power means Labour is potentially already categorically defeated in the election. (Whilst no one would wish it, this is an election campaign for John Key, right now. And I think he’s done an amazing job). However, Labour can’t afford to be seen with negative commentary in the press or to be distracting from the main task of rebuilding which is at hand. And in fact, aside from the ‘show of support’, one has to wonder what the Leader of the Opposition, who has no budget to apportion to recovery, or policy changes to make to aid and assist, was even doing at the scene in the first days, and again this week.
  5. Even in the midst of a national crisis of our own, can we realistically afford to shut our eyes to the rest of the world?
    Can we afford to ignore Libya’s 150,000 refugees, or the mudslides in Bolivia, the ongoing crisis in Egypt and the pull out of British aid in 6 African nations? Much as I have written in the last couple of days, we can’t allow the scale of the disaster in NZ terms to skew our perspective on the world we live in, especially as we attempt to rise from the dust in weeks to come. The cost of freedom in the Middle East is rising at our petrol pumps (ht: Adam McLane). There are broader economic implications to what is going on in the world right now, than just the recovery.
  6. I have, and I’m sure others have, some questions that need to be asked by way of good journalism.
    In fact, I’m sure that some of the questions are being asked, but perhaps they are hard to see in the midst of everything else. Like, why did USAR teams have time to take camera crews through the Cathedral when there are (reportedly) still up to 22 bodies inside or have those bodies already been removed? Not according to the latest information from Rev. Peter Beck. Like, how many of the major buildings that collapsed on Tuesday 22nd, were signed off as safe by engineers post-September 4th? Again, the answer will probably be a good one – but we should be asking the questions.
  7. Some personal credit where credit is due from me:
    • Hilary Barry, presenting the live feed on Tuesday in circumstances I would wish on no one. Having to commentate on live pictures, including graphic and frightening ones is terrifying.
    • Alistair Wilkinson, managing to bring some light relief in the early morning broadcasts.
    • Corin Dann & Petra Bagust, this new Breakfast duo have transformed in the last week. Corin has been a compassionate but appropriately un-sensationalist hometown boy. Petra has handled the couch in the home office really well. I’m impressed from what I’ve seen.

This is not a final rendering. I think the processing will continue for months to come. As with any crisis, new talents emerge from opportunity and strength comes from experience as well as applying lessons learned in the field. I think we have to give full credit to our news broadcasters for doing all this in our own backyard for the first time on this scale.

What do you think?