Author: Marcus Oxley, October 20 2016 - Marking International Day for Disaster Reduction, Marcus Oxley argues that we need more media coverage of disasters before – rather than after – they happen. This would make prevention more of a priority, allowing more people to ‘live to tell’.

After big disasters, the world responds with compassion for the victims and the humanitarian assistance machine kicks into gear. National and local governments respond with rescue operations. Other countries offer assistance. International NGOs deploy personnel and provide shelter, food and basic health services. Local and international media show images of the destruction and share victims’ appeals for support with the world. The international public responds with donations to alleviate the suffering of their fellow human beings.

And that is the way it should be. As human beings, it is our duty to do everything in our power to help with rescuing and treating the injured, and support efforts to bring communities back to normality. However, there is a flaw with this system of responding to disasters.

Ensuring more people ‘live to tell’

Nothing can be done – not by governments, institutions, civil society, communities or the media – to bring back the dead. “Everything can be rebuilt, but lives cannot be recovered, and that's what hurts the most." said Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa, after the April 2016 earthquake killed 661 people in his country.

With the devastating effects of Hurricane Matthew still fresh in our minds, we mark International Day for Disaster Reduction /on October 13th. This year, the theme is ‘Live to Tell’, to raise awareness of the need to curb the amount of lives lost by disasters, big and small.

Extreme weather events, like droughts and cyclones, aren’t as deadly as they used to be but mortality rates still aren’t going down fast enough. Plus the death rate for earthquakes is actually rising due to the high number of vulnerable communities living in unplanned urban settlements.

In 2015, world leaders agreed in Sendai, Japan, that disasters need to be made less deadly. But how? The answer is investing in and raising the profile of disaster prevention.

The media should be active before, not just after, a disaster hits

We all have a role to play in promoting prevention, including the media. How many times have you read a newspaper op-ed that asks: ‘What could have been done to prevent this catastrophe?’ Often asked rhetorically, this question is rarely answered by the author though it certainly should be. There is always a lot that could’ve been done and the answers are well-known locally by disaster-hit communities, civil society and government.

But here’s the catch. Prevention work isn’t an appealing topic for the public and so is understandably largely ignored by the media. Early warning systems, community preparedness, participatory budgeting, local government by-laws all sound as boring as watching paint dry. So I cannot blame the media for not making disaster prevention the biggest TV hit since ‘The Great British Bake Off’.

However, the local and international press can be powerful agents of change, through raising the profile of prevention by asking more incisive questions. Were effective early warning systems in place? Why were people’s homes built there in the first place? Were communities sufficiently prepared? Are government’s policies on disaster prevention adequate? Is local government preparedness properly funded? In short, journalists should be asking themselves: who is responsible for this disaster?

Speaking more broadly, the media can investigate root causes, raise the alarm about failings, interrogate inefficient policies and denounce corruption, negligence, malpractice and the lack of enforcement of regulations. This is what they should be doing not only after but also – most importantly – before the next extreme event strikes.

Working more closely with local media and NGOs

In addition to their important disaster response role, local media in particular can create public thirst for disaster prevention, for involving vulnerable communities in developing better policies and for demanding resources for local governments. Local media can also partner with civil society organisations to: discover and report on prevention work already being done, run national advocacy campaigns and hold politicians to account.

It is a challenging task but the rewards are worth it – saving lives when disasters strike. And the media does not need to go it alone; it has a valuable ally in civil society, especially in local NGOs.

While international NGOs will be on-the-ground and ready to talk to the media about rescue and relief operations, they’ve often just arrived (just like reporters) and so usually know little about the communities affected.

Local NGOs, on the other hand, are usually the first to respond after the communities themselves. They can serve as some of the media’s best sources of information about why there’s been devastation and what could have been done to prevent it. Local NGOs typically know communities well and have often assessed the most vulnerable areas and groups of the population. Partners like my organisation, the Global Network of Civil Society Organisations for Disaster Reduction (GNDR), can help the media to identify and contact these local NGOs and other key local actors that can lead positive change.

Think again about reports of Hurricane Matthew’s impact on Haiti and the USA. More than 500 people died in one country, 22 in the other. It’s not random that one hurricane led to such different outcomes in the two countries. Investment of time, money and energy in prevention is what will shrink this disparity, making the difference between life and death. Journalists have a crucial role in raising the profile of disaster prevention, so more people can live to tell.

Marcus Oxley is the Executive Director and co-founder of the Global Network of Civil Society Organisations for Disaster Reduction (GNDR). 

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