Crash course on reporting a disaster

September 2011

Being at the right place at a very wrong time. Only a journalist could squeeze the slightest of good from that.

An earthquake that measured 6.9 on the Richter scale hit the State of Sikkim on September 18, 2011. Its epicentre was just 64 km from the capital Gangtok, where I was, on holiday.

Over the next few days, it emerged that more than 100 people were reported killed in India, Nepal, China, Bhutan and Bangladesh.

With all respect to the memory of victims and those they left behind to rebuild lives from rubble, the disaster changed my life too – it helped me to think about the kind of journalist I want to be.

I didn’t break any story – unless one considers tweets.

Nor did I have my editors at The Hindu clamouring for one. (“Don’t worry, go get some rest.” The luxury of good ol’ print.)

So did I even want to report the biggest ‘story’ that I seemed to have fallen into?

'How are you feeling right now?'

J-school ethics papers have a definite question about doorstepping potential interview subjects. And that includes shoving a microphone under a grieving relative’s nose. I didn’t think intruding into private moments of shock and vulnerability, or breaking up a huddled family with my questions was a decent thing to do.

In some books, that may make me a lesser journalist. The thought made me miserable, but only until I stopped thinking of a disaster as a career opportunity.

My job, and my interest in an unfortunate situation, was to listen to the stories that others wanted to tell, and make sure people elsewhere heard them.

I did file a report from the frontlines. It was my thanks to the people of Sikkim for taking me in at a difficult time.

What I learnt about reporting from a disaster zone:

I'm far from being a veteran of disaster-zone reporting. But there are a few things I will be prepared for next time:

  • Be less embarrassed about asking people to tell their stories

    It isn’t prying into private matters to lend an ear to stories people are only too happy to share.

  • Report only what I see

    I could describe the sights, smells and sounds well, but I had little idea until a few hours later of how strong the tremor and its aftershocks had been.

    With no wire stories, prior reports or Google to base facts on, confirming sensitive facts and figures in a disaster zone was a challenge. With communication systems down, much of the information in the first 24 hours was fast changing and based on estimates.

    Noel Cisneros, broadcast journalist and tutor, who covered the New Zealand earthquake writes, "Though you may be in the centre of things, you will be out of the loop for the bigger picture...No one expects the first reporter on the scene to have all the information. The big picture is probably being pieced together by the wire services anyway."

    I found it crucial to have multiple sources confirming the information, and even then, it would be necessary to have the desk recheck data.

    It also made sense to differentiate between information that was overheard, rumoured, unconfirmed, the official version and the eye-witness versions.

  • Be tech-ready

    Thou must never walk around with a phone that’s low on battery.

    The smartphone is the best thing that happened to journalists since the invention of shorthand. Multimedia applications such as Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr for instant publishing; Twitter and Tumblr for publishing photographs; and YouTube for video upload seem indispensible.

    (I’m still looking for an Android alternative for Audioboo for quick audio upload. Soundcloud?)

    For more wholesome storytelling, I find Storify especially useful. Vuvox looks good and I’ve heard mixed reviews about Dipity (creating multimedia timeslines).

    After a phone, a camera is a journalist’s best friend.

  • Old-school is good

    Water, a portable charger, a notebook of essential contacts, a pen that writes and chocolate. Indispensible.

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