What’s the limit in covering disasters?

The usual focus on private grief was evident in the coverage of the “Sendong” disaster

By Fernando R. Cabigao Jr.
Published in PJR Reports, January-February 2012


WHEN TROPICAL Storm “Sendong” (international name: “Washi”) hit Northern Mindanao especially the cities of Cagayan de Oro and Iligan last December 16, it dumped more than a month of average rainfall in the city in just 12 hours. This caused flash floods that, laden with logs, rocks , mud and other debris,  swallowed entire villages,and swept away people,  houses and vehicles.

In just a matter of hours, the devastation had claimed more than 1,200 lives and injured more than 6,000 people, with  hundreds still missing. The damage to property, with over 4,000 houses destroyed, reached almost a billion pesos.

Even journalists weren’t spared from the tragedy.   But in reporting on “Sendong”, the press had a tendency to be insensitive in asking questions and was focused on the stories of devastated and sobbing survivors. The press was as usual fixated on the death toll, and after the first stories on the human cost of the storm, paid little attention to the survivors’ current condition and how the government and the private sector could best help them.

Press coverage of the possible causes of the flashfloods and landslides during the tropical storm’s devastation was commendable, but just wasn’t enough to answer such nagging questions as why, despite the lessons from the Typhoon “Ondoy” floods, the country was still unprepared for “Sendong”, the devastation of which was incidentally a virtual repeat of the Ormoc tragedy of 1990, during which flash floods carrying logs and other debris smashed into Ormoc town and killed thousands.

PJR Reports (PJRR) reviewed the press coverage of Tropical Storm “Sendong” from December 16 to December 31. PJRR reviewed the coverage of the BusinessMirrorBusinessWorld, MalayaManila BulletinManila Standard Today, the Philippine Daily InquirerThe Daily TribuneThe Manila Times, and The Philippine Star. Coverage by TV news programs 24 Oras, Aksyon, and TV Patrol during the same period was also monitored.

Covering “Sendong”

“The CMFR Ethics Manual: A Values Approach to News Media Ethics,”  states that “covering disasters in a country as disaster-prone as the Philippines has been problematic for Philippine journalism. The ethical offenses have ranged from insensitivity in the form of asking stupid questions to focusing on private grief through close-ups of sobbing mothers and/or children. In addition, truth-telling is often compromised in favor of sensational reporting consisting of body counts and horrific photographs.”

Look back:
Guidelines for covering disasters and catatrophes

On December 18, just two days after “Sendong” devastated Cagayan de Oro City, when the horror of the tragedy was still fresh in the survivors’ minds, a reporter of 24 Oras was insensitive enough to ask a survivor who  lost all of her family’s belongings about how she was going to celebrate Christmas.

The media obsession with death tolls was equally in evidence. On December 24, the Manila Standard Today reported that Benito Ramos, executive director of the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC),  had “ordered a stop to the counting of people missing in the floods and unaccounted for as a result of the dramatic increase in their number to 1,079 from just 51 overnight.” The Standard Today also quoted Ramos as saying that the figures were misleading and could alarm the public.

The media nevertheless continued to report on the death toll with several newspapers releasding conflicting reports on the number of deaths from NDRRMC and Philippine Red Cross. Some newspapers claimed that the death toll may reach 3,000; some news reports said that it was from 1,500 to 2,000. On December 28, the Inquirer reported that “in the disaster-stricken areas, conflicting reports led to a surge in the number of fatalities to nearly 1,500. The NDRRMC corrected its figure in the afternoon, saying the official death toll remained at 1,249.”

In a repeat of their practice of promoting themselves during tragedies, some media organizations played up  their own rescue and relief operations. 24 Oras, Aksyon, and TV Patrol reported the rescue and relief operations of their network. Aksyon aired the lengthiest  report, with  Cheryl Cosim even concluding in Filipino that: “Even if they are facing hard times, their smiles and thanks are always there every time we  help.” (See related story “TV news channels: The audience first, or the public be damned?”)

Too much human interest story

The Inquirer seemed to be the only local newspaper that obsessed with stories about the horrific experiences of the survivors. The newspaper, in publishing these articles (“Swept away to rooftops, running out of coffins in Cagayan De Oro”, “Survivors tell tales of nightmare, fear, panic, ‘I rode on wave of mud’”, “Father ignores stench to see son in coffin for last time”, “I wish I were the one who died, says ma”, “‘He is our only child who lived’”, “Dog dies after saving drowning girl in CDO flashflood”) bombarded readers with horror stories from the survivors without reporting on their current situation in evacuation centers.

The Inquirer also tended to connect something unimportant with major news reports. It managed to connect the victory of a contestant in a reality talent search program to the “Sendong” tragedy. The entertainment article “Tragedy clouds CDO girls’ victory in GMA-7 talent search” was published in the news section of the newspaper together with other articles about “Sendong”.

In 24 Oras, Aksyon, and TV Patrol, most of the stories were centered on crying relatives of the victims of “Sendong” and their search for the missing bodies of their relatives.  Aksyon also kept showing pixelated footage of the recovered bodies.

Comprehensive coverage?

The news reports on why  there were more than 1,000 fatalities when “Sendong” hit Northern Mindanao were ample. But what was missing was the government’s response to  disasters and their long-term action plan so that the “Sendong” tragedy would never happen again. Comprehensive or even minimal coverage on the government’s action plan after typhoon storm’s devastation was missing.

The Bulletin published a two-part special report on Dec. 30 and 31 on how  Executive Order (EO) 23 of the Aquino administration prohibiting the cutting of trees in natural forests had been ignored and  commercial logging still persists in the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao.

On Dec. 19, the Inquirer’s “Deadly mix for disaster: No flood warning, high tide, darkness” explained why the absence of a flood warning system, high tide, darkness and a false sense of security proved disastrous for the people of northern Mindanao. Also, it explained that illegal logging, rapid urbanization, and mining were some of the tragedy’s causes.