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Media Culpa

Social responsibility and the media

Shunpiking Magazine, Vol. 9. No. 46, Summer 2005

THE EFFECTS of Hurricane Juan and the extent of other hurricanes and storms, as well as climatic change, electrical blackouts and other man-made and natural disasters such as the Indian Ocean earthquake of 26 December 2004 have promoted new debate. Despite the enormous reach of the mass media and modern communications, environmental knowledge is not popularized, and information is not communicated in a timely fashion to the public.

"Nova Scotians were not prepared ..."
Another agenda was at work: international reporting aimed at promoting militarism, attacking national sovereignty, and prettifying the big powers who were using tragedy to fish in troubled waters.

Government, media and telephone, power and insurance monopolies stressed their own preparedness while attributing the extent of Juan's damage as if, in the words of Premier John Hamm, "Nova Scotians weren't prepared"; everyone was equally guilty and responsible. The state declared an emergency only a few hours before Juan's landfall. The Saturday edition of the Halifax Daily News did not warn its readers of the impending danger. The editor of the Sunday Herald admitted in a mea culpa three days later he had not seriously believed that Juan would strike land. Both newspapers rushed lavish, photo-rich and commemorative booklets onto the market. In February 2005 the then-editor of the Daily News editor wrote (in his last column, before being replaced):

"HRM has recently been wracked by two major storms -- Hurricane Juan and White Juan. In both cases, the response of most broadcast outlets was inadequate, leaving listeners in the dark about the initial impact and about the emergency response and follow-up issues afterward.

"In fact, during Hurricane Juan, public and private broadcasters were reluctant to break into national and syndicated shows to update the local public with critical information." [1]

In September 1997 this magazine published a three-page indepth feature by marine geophysicist Alan Ruffman entitled "Hurricane Hortense: A Fortuitous Warning", with the sidebar, "Those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it." He warned of the shortcomings of meteorological research, intensified pressures on the coastlines, and the lack of preparedness, especially by the government, coastal communities and response agencies. A copy was forwarded to the Emergency Measures Organization, with no response.

On 17 September 2003 -- as Hurricane Isabel approached the US coast, and 13 days before Juan -- Dr Ruffman was interviewed on shunpiking's radio show on hurricane response. He again stressed the lack of preparedness. Before Juan struck, shunpiking published the online dossier, "The Science, Literature and Politics of Hurricanes", including practical preparations, a chapter on the Newfoundland Tsunami, and the audio of Dr Ruffman's interview, still available on our website. [2]

The editors of shunpiking are neither scientists nor meteorologists. Shunpiking did not have the resources for immediate journalistic coverage of Hurricane Juan nor follow-up. But if shunpiking with its very modest resources can provide such information, how can the media monopolies, which have all the resources at their finger tips, be indifferent? No single newspaper in Atlantic Canada, nor either 'national' newspaper, has a science reporter on staff.

Tsunamis were initially represented as something characteristic solely of the Pacific Ocean. Broadcasters did not know how to pronounce the word. Why the US did not issue a timely warning became a mystery. However, the issue runs deeper.

The world saw the morbid media spectacle of 'helicopter journalism.' Images of thousands of dead Asians broadcast like so much flotsam and jetsam, as the military carnage in Iraq was hidden from the camera's eye.

John Pilger wrote in the New Statesman of 6th January that "the hypocrisy, narcissism and dissembling propaganda of the rulers of the world and their sidekicks are in full cry. Superlatives abound as to their humanitarian intent while the division of humanity into worthy and unworthy victims dominates the news. The victims of a great natural disaster are worthy (though for how long is uncertain) while the victims of man-made imperial disaster are unworthy and very often unmentionable."

The political storm around 'aid' distribution, the strategic nature to the Pentagon and shipping and oil monopolies of such sea lanes as the Malacca Strait and off Sri Lanka, and interference by Western NGOs in internal affairs were simply not reported.

Paul Martin's 'humanitarian' agenda? What happened to aid for Haiti, devastated by Hurricane Jeanne? Once the 'aid' summit was held in Jakarta, coverage evaporated. [3]

Another agenda was at work: international reporting aimed at promoting militarism, attacking national sovereignty, and prettifying the big powers who were using tragedy to fish in troubled waters.

The media and journalists have a social responsibility to warn people of coming natural disasters, and to present truthful, accurate and timely information, rather than laissez-faire or sensationalist news reports. And, as Mr Loney underlines, people cannot be "left in the dark about ... follow-up issues afterward."

Endnotes

1 "Media: Your choices are shrinking," Bretton Loney, Daily News, 26 February 2005, pg 2

2 www.shunpiking.org/index0103.htm

3 The chauvinistic response of the local media was epitomized by the 31 December 2005 Daily News headline: "Hopeful. Family Prays for missing Yarmouth woman; Death toll approaches 120,000 . . . "


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