Disasters need a human face, but it’s still humans in desperate situations

As the damage that Hurricane Harvey exacted on the state of Texas is fully realized, it’s a chance to celebrate the hard work and dedication of emergency crews and civilians who did all they could to help in the face of this natural disaster. There is, however, one segment of the population that should take this as a chance to reevaluate themselves and their work—the media.

A CNN interview highlighted just what’s wrong with how the media covers many natural disasters. In the interview a reporter questions a woman, who has just arrived at a shelter with her children, about their experience, and the woman grows upset with the lack of empathy from the journalist.

It’s a natural journalistic response to want to attach a human face to tragedy, and use that to create empathy in viewers and readers. But that desire for a human face also has to be balanced with the knowledge that these are human beings in a dangerous and desperate situation.

I’m not arguing that disasters and storms aren’t newsworthy or that they shouldn’t be covered. However, journalists, editors, and even viewers need to acknowledge that these are our fellow human beings we are watching. The homes that are flooded belong to people like you and me, the submerged streets could easily be your street one day.

The media can also take this opportunity to reevaluate its focus, and what stories it chooses to tell. While it’s natural to focus on the issues in your country and region, there has also been terrible flooding in South Asia. The disaster has affected 40 million people across India, Nepal and Bangladesh, killing over 1,200.

Again the natural response, and the response that best serves your media consumers, is to report on what’s closest to you. But also again that response must be balanced out with the need to educate on global issues.

Natural disasters bring out the best in humanity, as average people rally together to do what they can to help neighbours and strangers. The media can help share those incredible stories with the world. But in sharing these stories, there has to be recognition that all those passing by are involved in some of the worst times of their lives, and aren’t mere props for an interviewer. Asking people being interviewed more sensitive questions, as well as being understanding of their ordeal are ways the media can improve.