Exempting themselves

LAST WEEK’S flurry of media attention on Tacloban City and some other areas in the Visayas supertyphoon Yolanda (Haiyan) smashed into on November 8, 2013 has once more underlined the persistence in the media of the habit of erratic reporting in the aftermath of even the most significant events only to refocus attention on them once they’re commemorated.

In the weeks that followed the devastation wrought by Yolanda, the media did report on the relief efforts, including both their successes as well as failures and shortfalls, and the involvement of foreign governments and private organizations. But the efforts at the rehabilitation of the Yolanda-hit areas, particularly what government had been doing, were covered only sporadically and only for a few months after, and were soon set aside, despite the immense destruction in lives, livelihood and property, and the obvious need to restore order, economic activity and some semblance of normal existence in the affected areas—and despite the attempts of both advocacy groups and the victims themselves to call attention to the slow pace of reconstruction.

Without media attention, the habitual government inefficiencies, indifference and lassitude, plus the usual politicking of local politicians, summed up in the “business as usual” mind set, could only have prevailed, and did. Only in the days preceding, as well as during November 8 this year, did the media refocus on the rehabilitation of the Yolanda-affected areas, only to discover that it had not proceeded as those affected had hoped for.

The veritable storm surge in news reports, columns, editorials, and feature stories in the run up to, during, and after the first anniversary of the disaster, while sending mixed messages—things are going well, but not as well as they should be—while either implicitly or directly blaming government, glossed over media’s own responsibility. That responsibility could be summed up in the need to simply do good journalism.

Yolanda was the most powerful typhoon to ever make landfall. It killed a possible high of 12,000 men, women and children (the estimate of some foreign relief agencies) or at least 6,000 (the Philippine government’s partial count), destroyed hundreds of millions in property, razed entire cities, brought the economy of the affected communities to a standstill, destroyed entire families and shattered countless lives.

The human, social and economic costs are immense, and to reduce those costs in future catastrophes requires the highest levels of State and citizen commitment. The way relief operations and rehabilitation efforts have been and are planned and implemented should provide both the government and the citizenry crucial lessons in how to best survive and prevail over disasters, given the Philippines’ susceptibility not only to typhoons but also to earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, floods, storm surges, rising ocean levels and other disasters in the wake of the emerging “new normal” defined by climate change.

There is no exaggerating the significance and relevance of the Yolanda disaster not only on the lives of those affected but also on the entire country and its capacity to cope with future disasters. If only for this signal fact, the news media, following their own standards and in observance of no more and no less than their duty to report, comment on and analyze issues of significance. In this instance the need was for the media to direct their energies to the sustained monitoring and critique of how the government has been rebuilding the affected communities not only for the sake of providing information, but even more crucially, to engage the communities involved and the rest of the citizenry in the common task of assuring their speedy recovery and drawing the appropriate lessons from the experience.

But even during the surge in media coverage occasioned by the first year anniversary of the Yolanda disaster, the imperative of citizen self-help and self-organization as a key factor in the acceleration of the pace of rehabilitation did not receive the media attention it deserves. Neither has the affected communities’ and the private groups engaged in rehabilitation efforts’ views on the problems on the ground been taken seriously, the media being focused solely on government views, policies and efforts. For the most part the communities and private organizations assisting them have provided only the fodder for feature and “feel good” stories, as if these groups, though most aware of what is going on, have nothing of import to communicate to policy makers and implementors as well as the entire citizenry.

Despite the immensity of its impact on millions of Filipinos and the entire country, the Yolanda disaster is in grave danger of being consigned to the same warrens of media amnesia and complacency as the latest robbery, bus accident or government scandal. It helps explain much if the citizenry’s indifference and cluelessness as well as the total absence of that sense of urgency that the crisis Yolanda generated should be driving every citizen. Government does bear much of the responsibility for the molasses-like progress of rehabilitation efforts. But the media share at least part of the blame for their failure to simply do their job.