Sunday, September 05, 2010

The Katrina Effect

One good thing that came from the Bush/Cheney regime’s failure after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans is that other countries have learned how not to respond to disaster. But it also makes some newsmedia hypercritical.

A few hours after the earthquake hit Christchurch, Prime Minister John Key was in the city, seeing the damage first-hand. His role is, of course, largely symbolic, pledging government help and showing solidarity with the victims. It was a good start.

The county’s biggest paper, New Zealand Herald, didn’t see things that way, of course. In a typically curmudgeonly editorial, the Herald said Government ministers’ initial response “could have been an episode of Dad's Army,” and declared, “Yesterday, the authorities didn't lead—they followed.”

The Herald, which always has a massive chip on its shoulder, it seems (though not usually about anything National does), was being stunningly unfair. It’s easy for them to sit in their offices in Albert Street in Auckland and pontificate that things weren’t done well enough, but things never go well enough in a big natural disaster, especially one that strikes late at night/early morning. The government response was moving within hours, not days as with Katrina, and that response grew over time as the scale of the disaster became clearer.

Mind you, the Herald has issues, maybe overcompensating for its pronounced Auckland bias. The Sunday Herald was headlined “DOOMSDAY”, despite no loss of life or more than a couple injured people. What would their headline be if there had been wide scale death and injury? A story began, "Kiwis are coming to terms with the devastation of one of their proudest cities," leading commentator Russell Brown to ask on Twitter, “Seriously, who wrote this stuff?”

Christchurch is hurting. According to the Council’s own website, as of 6AM this morning, they determined that “More than 500 buildings in the city are damaged—more than 90 of those in the central city area,” though some of that would be relatively minor. “Water supply has resumed for all but 15-20% of the city,” the Council reported. All things considered, that’s pretty remarkable progress—on top of the truly amazing fact that there don’t appear to have been any deaths from the earthquake or more numerous injuries. Still, the threat isn’t over: The city has endured some 30 aftershocks and a severe storm is heading toward them.

The situation is bad enough, without the Herald resorting to overwrought, emotive prose or being quick to pass judgement for what they—world experts in disaster response—see as failures in government. Rather than faux solidarity with Christchurch or rash criticism, the Herald should stick to reporting the facts as well as reminding people in other parts of the country what they need to be prepared for.

As bad as this earthquake was, everyone agrees it could have been much worse—if it had occurred in the daytime, when the city was filled with people, for example. It should serve as a warning to others. Still, I bet the officials in Canterbury will provide an example of how to respond to a major natural disaster, no thanks to the New Zealand Herald.

Update 06 September 2010: Today on Twitter Russell Brown asked the Herald's Jonathan Milne, "Aren't you even a little bit embarrassed about that DOOMSDAY front page?" He replied, "No, Russell, I'm massively proud of our team's job, especially given many had their own homes and families to worry about." Later, after Brown persisted and singled out not just what he called (rightly) the "inappropriate" cover, but also that the first word in their story was "Looting", Milne echoed the swipe at other media in the paper's editorial: "Our key role is to accurately report what's happening on the ground, incl extensive and previously largely unreported looting… Not to adopt a 'tone' to make a couple of Auckland bloggers feel warm and fuzzy and at one with the world."

The problem is still that cover and the emphasis on "looting." As Brown pointed out in a Tweet, the Herald story referred to "several" incidents, which is hardly "extensive". Brown linked to a Scoop story reporting that “Christchurch police [said] that there was one incidence of looting ,” and ended: "According to Police, the two men were caught in the act and arrested and that since then there have been no other incidences of looting."

So, the Herald was tabloidising the news with its screaming front page AND failing to "accurately report" what was happening by focusing first on looting, which was not, in fact, "extensive" at all.

To see the Twitter exchanges yourself, you can look at Russell Brown's Twitter Feed or Jonathan Milne's Twitter Feed. The photo of the front page in question can be found here (via Spatula Forum).


Juli said...

We are indeed lucky New Zealand is so sparsely populated, and the earthquake happened when everyone was home in bed.

I actually didn't think that much of the quake until the media started trying to create a news day. Then I remembered that a 7 is actually a really big earthquake.

P.S. I have had a HUGE crush on Russell Brown for years. xx

Nik said...

Yes, agreed about the DOOOOOOOMSDAY headline -- I actually had a line on my blog about how 'restrained' it was but took it out as I am tangentially work-related to these people I suppose... But yeah, the editorial was pretty awful, trying to make something out of nothing yet again.

Arthur Schenck said...

Juli:Yes. And the Christchurch quake would have had far more casualties if had happened at another time/day. I think that if such a quake hit Wellington or Auckland, time and day wouldn't matter so much. So, lots of luck all around.

Rusell Brown is one of my favourite media people, though TVNZ now relegates him to TVNZ7.

Nik: I wish I knew why the Herald seems to be so perpetually grumpy, but, fwiw, it was like that when is was NZ-owned, too: It got its "Granny Herald" nickname for a reason, back when Wilson and Horton owned it.