Why Is Our Media So Terrible When It Come to Covering Disasters?
A diorama of the Aceh tsunami. Photo by Hendri Abik
Disaster Journalism

Why Is Our Media So Terrible When It Come to Covering Disasters?

In Indonesia, there's always two tragedies when disaster strikes: the disaster itself and the terribly insensitive way the media covers the story.
July 16, 2018, 10:34am

The Thai cave rescue was so many things. It was the biggest story in the world for about a week. It was an amazing feat of bravery and creativity from the dive team and rescuers. And it was exactly the kind of heroic disaster that Hollywood loves to make into a movie, time and time again.

But here in Indonesia, where the rescue of the 12 boys and their coach dominated the news cycle as well, the story struck a lot of us in a totally different way. Now, Thailand and Indonesia aren't similar places. Hell, they're not even close. But the way the disaster was covered in Thailand stood in such stark contrast to the way we cover our own disasters here—and there were plenty that sadly occurred during the same exact time—that some were asking what the hell was wrong with our media.

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Here's how the press covers a disaster in Indonesia: Start out by showing up at the victims' homes and ask all their neighbors if they had a feeling that something tragic like this was going to happen. Then reach out to the victims' families and ask them to tell you how they feel. They usually get angry or sad at the question, but that's exactly what you want anyway, right? So make sure to capture it all on camera. All this emotion will definitely bring you traffic to your website, or keep viewers staring at the screen long enough to forget that every other 24-hour news channel has their cameras trained on the same exact scene.

You think I'm being too dark here? Look at this:

This is how we cover tragedies here. The media, which full disclosure, everyone here at VICE is part of, loves to film scenes of suffering, and you can find similar footage of nearly every disaster, big or small, public or personal, that's happened here in recent memory.

It gets even more problematic when some of the victims are women. Here's how the media playbook reads: make sure you find the female victims as fast as possible, but only the pretty and young women. That's because the first thing you need to do is find a way to exploit their youth and beauty. Find out who she's dating. It's even better if she was about to get married. Make sure you get it in the headline. Ignore their trauma for now. Ignore their sorrow too, because all you want here is to needlessly sexualize someone on the worst day of their life.

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Next, ask around and see if anyone on the boat was doing something that implies that they brought this tragedy on themselves. You know what I'm talking about here. Figure out if they were sinning, if they were doing something that could inspire God's wrath. Maybe someone was gambling. Maybe there are rumors that the location of a tragedy was the location of some brothel or massage parlor. Then write it all up, like how the passengers aboard the recent ferry accidents were gambling or drunk at the time. The internet is going to be really pissed about this and pile on the criticisms of your irresponsible reporting online, but, hey, traffic is traffic, right?

Oh, and don't forget to call up the local mystic. Everyone loves a mystic, and of course some of the more unscrupulous ones will leap at the occasion to get some more press. They'll probably even mix science and magic together, crafting a fantastical, supernatural reason why tragedy struck. Maybe they'll even say another disaster is right around the corner. Nothing drives traffic like a made-up panic.

If all of that isn't enough, then just find someone famous who loves to talk. It doesn't matter who, as long as they love to be in front of the cameras and have a knack for keeping the conversation going, whatever the cost.

Now, you might be thinking, wait a minute, that's a lot of work, how am I ever going to find the time to fly out to the actual scene of the disaster? Don't worry about it. There's no need. Jakarta is the center. Jakarta is everything. All the government officials are here anyway, and nothing says "I've done my job," like a quote from a government official. Just ask them how it's going. They'll probably tell you that they've totally got it under control. "Help is on the way," they'll say, before listing off a bunch of unnecessary data about the number of trucks, or first aid kits, or boats, being shipped out as we speak. All of that is code for "it's all alright," so bam, tragedy over. Time to move on to the next thing.

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The public is so used to all of these stories that they've begun to call out the media for it's rampant insensitivity in times of crisis. One Twitter user recently wrote, “If the cave rescue in Thailand were to happen in Indonesia, online media would’ve run with headlines like: ‘This is how the victims’ sibling, partner, and family feel when they went missing,’ ‘Their parents didn’t see this coming,’ or ‘The spirits were angry because the cave became a tourist destination, so they hid these kids'."

Why does this always happen? Veteran Kompas journalist Ahmad Arif, the author of Jurnalisme Bencana, Bencana Jurnalisme, wrote that tragedy and disaster had become commodities to the media industry. In an essay for the media watchdog site Remotivi penned shortly after the 2014 AirAsia crash, which, for those who don't remember, was a real low point in media sensitivity in Indonesia, Ahmad explained that “[Sensationalizing tragedies] will only make… the public get too familiar with it. And if anything, it’s not sympathy that they get, but trauma instead. It will eventually make people feel apathetic about death. Back in the day, it was the TV news who exploited such tragedies. Now it’s online media.”

The problem is that today's media is more concerned with exploiting a tragedy than reporting on the facts, explained Abdul Manan, the head of the Alliance of Independent Journalists. And it's often the victims of tragedies who pay the price.

“By exposing these sad stories, for some it could draw sympathy, but for the victims and their families, it’s like they’re reliving the trauma,” he explained. “If media only exposes audiences to these things, then they can’t influence the government to come up with necessary policies."

So, maybe, before the next tragedy we can all get a bit less disastrous at covering disasters.