Press freedom under attack during Hurricane Irma
Hurricane Irma as it bashes through the Caribbean on September 7. (Antii Lipponen)
As the Caribbean and Florida have been pummeled by Hurricane Irma these past few days, people around the world have been desperate for news of their loved ones, while those stuck on battered islands and coasts with no electricity, no information on rescue activities, and little hope that their lives and property will make it through this A-bomb-level storm are left trying to find cell phones that work to learn what they can.
And now the effort to get information out to desperate survivors is being hampered even further.
On Saturday, Paul Danahar, BBC’s North America bureau editor, tweeted: “‘No press allowed here!’ was local authority’s reaction to BBC in British Virgin Islands. And now this. Sorry that’s not how democracy works.” By “this,” Danahar was referring to a government statement saying, “The governor is not issuing permission for any further media to arrive on island.”
No, this isn’t how democracy—or press freedom—works. Instead it is a sign of the growing disrespect for the fourth estate, a campaign spearheaded by the American president (“fake news!”) and supported by those who refuse to look carefully at why media matters—particularly in times of disaster.
Even the Federal Emergency Management Agency (at least the 1999 version of FEMA) recognized the critical role of the press: “Television, radio, and the print medium are pathways of information dissemination and channelers of public demands—it is how most citizens learn about disasters.”
In a moment of irritation, however, the FEMA paper admits: “Critical coverage often is unpleasant. This can lead to friction between the media and emergency management personnel who are leery of media scrutiny of their actions, when they are trying to do their best to save lives and protect property.” But it goes on to say, “Critical media coverage can also provide an incentive for political leaders and public officials to demonstrate responsiveness through investigations of incompetence, mismanagement, or wrong doing.”
Beyond the absolutely essential role of being gadflies in a time of disaster response, media do several crucial things to protect the public: They report on destroyed areas too dangerous to enter, casualty rates, where to go for emergency help, and how best to provide resources like clean water and food to victims who are suddenly homeless or without power. They provide a roadmap for how to proceed in an aftermath. The press can also suppress actual fake news and rumors that are causing panic. A sense of social order and calm can be instilled with rational, evenhanded coverage, giving the media the role of public therapist, in a way.
And think about the already significant role media have played in disseminating government warnings to evacuate, and updates on the path of the multiple storms currently wreaking havoc on the Caribbean and Florida, not to mention Texas a couple weeks ago.
But yes, there can be downsides to media coverage during disasters—especially that of broadcast media. Playing disaster scenes over and over can retraumatize viewers. Ratings can trump the role of journalism for the public good. Focusing on one particularly bad situation within the greater damage can misrepresent what emergency services are actually needed on the ground. Misinformation—aka badly reported information—can confuse and worsen panic as well.
Yet there are many examples of the value of journalism during natural disasters. Take the 2010 Haiti earthquake, for instance, in which up to 312,000 people died and 300,000 were injured. “Haiti served as a powerful reminder of the dual role — both documenting and aiding — that news organizations can play in a crisis,” wrote Nieman Lab, a Harvard-based site focused on the future of news and innovation. Nieman pointed to traditional outlets, like The New York Times and CNN, which together with NGOs and Google, came up with a new way to find people lost in the quake.
There is an argument to be made in these days of heavy social media: that perhaps the role of the traditional press is less important in these situations. But social media is rife with rumors, misinformation, and downright calls for panic. Which is not to dismiss the role of social media entirely. Citizens in disaster areas can get out information of hazards they’ve witnessed or be of help in locating individuals, etc. Still, there is a difference between laypeople who tweet and Facebook versus what journalists do for a living: Journalists use news judgment, which is a kind of critical-thinking analysis based on interviews with officials and experts. One humanitarian tech professional points to what happened in Pakistan, 2013, as a case study.
“Twitter added little value during the recent  Pakistan earthquake, for example,” Patrick Meier, an expert on humanitarian technology and innovation, wrote on his iRevolution blog, according to the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “Instead, it was the Pakistani mainstream media that provided the immediate situational awareness necessary for a preliminary damage and needs assessment.
“This means that our humanitarian technologies need to ingest both social media and mainstream media feeds.”
So we need both social media and the press, it seems, although on balance, traditional media is still the best way to help acutely suffering people. Banning media from what is basically a blast zone does nobody any favors—and it is a clear violation of press freedom.
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