Not Just Reporting, But Supporting - How Media Can Truly Serve Audiences in Disasters

When disasters strike, people need accurate, useful information, fast. The media can play a powerful role here. And although the world has seen a major shift away from traditional platforms towards social media, for millions of people a far older technology can still provide a lifeline in disasters.

"Unborn babies die when earthquakes strike," says Shanta Poudel. "I was really scared."

Shanta lives in Ramkot, an isolated village in the hills of the Kathmandu District of Nepal. She wasn't the only woman in the region worrying about her pregnancy, after the 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck in April 2015, word had spread that earthquakes harmed foetuses in the womb.

Rumours are common in humanitarian emergencies, tensions are high, events are evolving rapidly, and information vacuums are quickly filled with gossip and scaremongering - some of which can have fatal consequences. One rumour that was circulating in West Africa during that Ebola outbreak, was that eating onions could cure the disease.

Shanta's worries were put to rest after she listened to a radio broadcast. "I relied on the BBC Milijuli Nepali programme," she says. "I learned that I needed to rest and not worry, not to do anything strenuous because that's what causes babies to die in the womb. If I hadn't got that information, I would have been frightened all the time."

Milijuli Nepali (Together Nepal) was a special 15 minute, daily magazine programme which the organisation I belong to, BBC Media Action, started after the earthquake. It was broadcast through a network of hundreds of local stations in Nepal to help those affected by the earthquake.

When disasters strike, people need accurate, useful information, fast. The media can play a powerful role here. And although the world has seen a major shift away from traditional platforms towards social media, for millions of people a far older technology can still provide a lifeline in disasters.

Radio can reach thousands of people immediately, including in areas that are remote and difficult for aid workers to access. A driving message from UNESCO on World Radio Day, 13th February, which this year highlights the value of radio in disasters and emergencies, is that it reaches the most vulnerable - people who are isolated, poor, illiterate, home-bound or unconnected to the digital world.

But what use is listening to the radio when your house has collapsed, you have no food or water, or you are injured? The answer is that the right kind of information on the airwaves can do a lot.

The first and most important responders in a crisis are not aid agencies, governments or emergency services. It is the people who are directly affected by the crisis, who act first and who are the core agents of survival and recovery.

Aside from sharing information on when help is coming and where to get it, broadcasters can draw on expert advice on what people can do in the absence of aid - how to boil contaminated water to ensure it's safe to drink, how to clean wounds, how to build a safe temporary shelter, how to help a traumatised child.

Often the best solutions come from local people themselves. Atheer Gaza (Gaza on Air) a radio series, BBC Media Action produced in 2014, gave practical advice and information to people affected by conflict. The advice to boil water was of limited use for families who didn't have any fuel. An elegant answer to that problem came from a listener, who explained how he used sunlight to purify water and - after health experts confirmed his advice was sound - producers were able to put his step-by-step description on air for others to use. In another episode, a listener explained his ingenious way of safely using a car battery to charge his mobile phone.

Miljuli Nepali and Atheer Gaza are what we at Media Action describe as "Lifeline Programming", content designed to help people facing crises - programming for - not about those people. The approach and content is quite different from conventional news coverage of disasters. Over the years we have learnt some lessons about what audiences find helpful during humanitarian emergencies and create a free Lifeline course to prepare and encourage journalists to think differently about disaster coverage and produce content for the affected population, as well as about them.

Here are my top three learnings:

1. A focus on solutions, not just problems

Most coverage of disasters tends to focus on 'telling the story' - explaining what happened, the plight of those who are suffering, the struggles of the humanitarian response, and so on. But in a crisis, people don't just want to hear their problems fed back to them or updates on the death toll; they need to hear and discuss solutions, and they need 'news you can use' - accurate information that is practical and actionable.

2. Hearing from people 'like me'

In the early stages of the West Africa Ebola outbreak, much of the communication about what people needed to do, to prevent the spread of the virus felt flat. It was top-down, untrusted and gave little consideration to how deeply engrained the cultural practices and behaviours were which people were being asked to change.

A major turning point was when heads of communities, religious leaders and ordinary people became involved in the discussion. For example, Imams worked with disease control experts to draw parallels between the messages of the Koran and the measures around hygiene that people needed to take. Religious leaders also came up with acceptable alternatives to the tradition of washing the bodies of deceased.

3. Programmes that are engaging and uplifting

One of the most popular formats we have used in Lifeline Programming is drama. As well as drawing a wide listenership through being entertaining, it is a useful way of addressing the more sensitive, emotionally complex challenges which audiences may face when, for example, dealing with the death of a loved one, or the loss of their home. We also use local musicians a lot. Music can be a useful tool within programmes for reinforcing key lifesaving information in a memorable way, but also a way of creating breathing space, a moment of respite and distraction from fears and troubles - and this in itself can be a lifeline for those who are suffering.

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