In about 20 minutes, coastlines were devastated in South and Southeast Asia, creating a huge global news story and testing newsgathering skills on all fronts. As a foreign journalist based in Sri Lanka, innumerable issuessprang to my mind, and several of these will continue to engage my attention even after the tsunami’s wake of destruction has passed. One of these long-term issues involves the impact of the instant globalization of journalism; the second is about cultural gaps that exist between journalists and sources.
These issues are but two of several vital yardsticks to measure the manner in which the media reported and commented on the tsunami story. I regard them as setting up critical parameters by which to gauge the long-term influences this reporting assignment will have on the continuing evolution of journalism.
For me, covering the tsunami as a one-person bureau for a foreign newspaper meant balancing big-picture stories with reporting about ground-level tragedies. In an island where practically everyone along the coast had a story to tell, I viewed my job as one of keeping the stories focused along carefully chosen themes. This need was heightened by the fact that Chennai in India, the publishing center of my newspaper, The Hindu, also suffered from the tsunami. Therefore I alternated between big picture, national impact reporting, and stories of human suffering, which essentially were told as micro-level narratives.
In hindsight, I totally brushed away the first indication of this disaster. Around 6:30 a.m. on December 26th, my wife woke me up to say that she felt a tremor. We were staying at a hill resort on one of our rare visits away from Colombo. I dismissed her words with a joke. Soon, my sister-in-law called from Chennai to say they’d felt tremors there. After hearing this, I called up a colleague in India for further details, and he said he’d get back to me with information.
Matters had not yet come to a boil, but I was on a tentative alert. After breakfast, I went to the room to send our son down for breakfast, when my wife called up to say she heard a radio report of an eastern town hit by a “tidal wave.” The tsunami story, unmistakably, had started. Within minutes, through phone calls, I was able to establish that the entire eastern coast was hit—from northern Sri Lanka to the southern tip. By the time I set out from the hill resort to drive down to Colombo, the spread and magnitude of the disaster was clear. I sent the first story—a two-line newsbreak—from my hotel room, then started to drive back to Colombo.
The first day’s coverage was essentially a big picture story—based on official versions—both at the capital and from the districts. The sheer numbers were unimaginable. At this stage, I regretted putting off a rather tedious bit of background research that involved collating divisional population statistics, which would have given an overall picture of the number of people living in the coastal villages. I learned that day that the role of background preparation is a critical element in preparedness and can give journalists a cutting edge in their coverage of unexpected events.
The globalization of the tsunami coverage became more apparent with the arrival of TV crews from throughout the world. Journalists were eager to set out to the disaster zone, and a majority headed to the southern city, Galle. With their focus nearly entirely on the south, however, the powerful TV medium sadly used the same bow to play various tunes. A more geographical spread of coverage could have brought out the wider impact of the devastation. Unfortunately, but understandably, the story stopped where the road ended.
Witnessing and Reporting the Devastation
A journalist in Sri Lanka is used to witnessing scenes of gore. I have seen blasted bodies of suicide bombers—a head hanging from a tree and a torso thrown away several feet, a mass hacking of over 30 persons, including children and expectant mothers inside a village house, to name just two. Reporting on the tsunami, however, found scenes of devastation that were impossible to comprehend. In a village in northern Sri Lanka, the bloated, putrefying body of a child—barely five or six years old—lay beneath a canvas, and in a southern city, the stench of the dead suffocated my nostrils as I drove past, even though I was in an air-conditioned and well insulated car.
The entire coastline was obliterated. None of the landmarks used to help identify a place were there. In short, nothing existed. The toll on the journalist’s sensitivities is something that one has to be prepared for. And putting what one witnesses into words requires a difficult, but optimal, distancing from the story and a way of bringing to the telling some perspective. Deciding how to embark on telling these stories was complex because of the many angles one could write about, so pegging my reporting thematically to the big picture story came in extremely handy.
While I did not have problems choosing themes and stories, I did encounter difficulties in finding telephone lines to file my stories. One time I drove nearly 70 km on a devastated road, with a diversion through village tracts, before finding the single communication facility, barely 30 minutes before deadline. The sense of relief one gets after sending the story out from a devastated place is different, for it is not a political story but a human story, often about a voiceless, faceless person on the street who has lost it all. Certainly the world would not have stopped if that story was not sent but, as journalists, we would have failed in our duty to the devastated people.
“Is your friend [from a U.S. TV channel] here?” an agitated Sri Lankan academic friend asked me a week into the tsunami reporting. By then the international media had established a major presence in Sri Lanka and were predictably focused on the southern region. “Please tell them to be sensitive in what they are doing,” my nonjournalist friend said. Some elements of the coverage of survivors’ accounts, particularly by the high-impact television medium, both domestic and international, had not gone over well in sections of Sri Lankan society. One report, in which a small boy was asked to reenact how he survived and then taken to the site of his mother’s grave, had drawn much criticism as an example of insensitive journalism.
When I mentioned this to my friend at the TV channel, he assured me that there’d been no such intent. “In a way it helps the victims and survivors overcome the trauma,” he told me, with a tone of conviction.
This exchange demonstrated to me that we were experiencing in the coverage of this story a clear case of cross-cultural consequences, which can happen in situations of such rapid-fire journalism. The most telling comment I heard on this subject came from a Sri Lankan villager who lived deep in the south of the country. Knowing I was a foreign journalist, he said: “Go tell the world that people here are helpless. They are not beggars, they all lived well. Now they have lost it.” What his words said to me is that to survivors this was not a time for wallowing or showing pity.
Technology and Reporting
Undoubtedly, text messages and the Internet played a huge role in the coverage of this story. However, with respect to Webloggers, to the best of my knowledge their presence was not so widespread in the print medium in either India and in Sri Lanka. I attribute this to two reasons:
The disaster took place in the backyard and doorstep of South and Southeast Asia, and major news groups with their own correspondents didn’t have as much need to resort to bloggers’ accounts.
More importantly, the blogger is still not in the mainstream of journalism. Due to the manner of bloggers’ news collection, one cannot be sure if the route of multisourcing and multiconfirmation has been taken.
For instance, I do not file a major story unless it is unimpeachably confirmed from more than one source or it has documentary substantiation. Without taking anything away from the excellent job done by bloggers, I would still consider their work as providing vital leads for me to follow-up meticulously before going to print.
The Global News Story
The tsunami reporting illuminats the global news impact of a regional catastrophe. This reporting offers a rich area for research in content analysis and examination of various media approaches and journalist-source/the victim-as-source dynamics, as well as many other dimensions of the storytelling. I see in this reporting implications for the future of journalism that involve both the preparedness of a journalist, in terms of backgrounder research and up-to-date contacts, and the sensitivity reporters show to victims, often under cross-cultural conditions. And I would add one more: Reporting from this region rapidly tapered away with the departure of the major global visitors, particularly the U.S. Secretary of State, who made a whistle-stop tour of the island and addressed a press conference at the tarmac of the airport, and the U.N. Secretary General, who made, in his words, “a less than 48-hour visit” to the island.
The visitors have gone and so have the major news organizations. Is this right that global journalism be so fleet-footed in its attention to a devastation of this scale? Here in Sri Lanka, the devastation remains, and so do its victims. V.S. Sambandan is special correspondent, reporting on Sri Lanka and the Maldives for The Hindu newspaper, published from Chennai, India.