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Helping newsrooms get disaster risk ready, an International Science Council and World Editors Forum collaboration

Recent devastating wildfires, floods and earthquakes have highlighted the increasing risk of extreme climate events, large-scale public health crises and natural hazards. Editors from 15 news organisations gathered at the World News Media Congress in Taipei to brainstorm ways to prepare their newsrooms and responses for unexpected disasters.

This article was originally published on 18 August 2023 by WAN-IFRA.

Globally, concerted efforts are underway to plan better and coordinate responses to reduce the risk of future hazardous events. With the experience of COVID-19 still fresh, what planning should newsrooms now be doing to play their part in any future crises?

This question underpinned a masterclass and workshop convened with the support of the International Science Council (ISC), and led by Fergus Bell, during the World News Media Congress in Taiwan in June.  The workshop used as a guide the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, an agreement and planning mechanism of UN Member States to seek concrete actions to protect societies from the risks of disasters.

The ISC recently led a scientific review of the Framework, making three recommendations that may apply to media and the news industry:

*Develop multi-hazard early-warning systems to anticipate and reduce the impact of disasters and cascading risks across timescales.

*Pilot new ways of communicating risk information and its implications for risk management and sustainable development.

*Develop a cadre of genuinely trans-disciplinary professionals to expand the interface between science, policy and practice.

Report for the Mid-Term Review of the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction

International Science Council. 2023. Report for the Mid-term Review of the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction. Paris, France. International Science Council. DOI: 10.24948/2023.01.

Recommendations that emerged from editors upon analysis of the Framework through a news lens include:

  • To take an active and inclusive approach in providing comprehensible information to enhance public awareness at regional and global levels, media outlets must recognise stakeholders’ specific roles and responsibilities.
  • When disaster-related information spreads rapidly on social media, news reporting should leverage social media and multimedia platforms to bring data, interviews, contextual facts, and background information to the public’s attention. The goal is to help individuals better understand the impending situation.
  • News media should enhance fact-checking and provide comprehensive reporting of the work already accomplished by relevant authorities. 
  • News media should collaborate closely with scientists and researchers, utilising data and analysing the impact of disasters.
  • Journalists should question policymakers about the causes of such disasters and what steps must be taken next. 
  • When the disaster subsides, news media should facilitate forums that invite stakeholders, including policymakers, non-governmental organisations, and representatives of the people, to discuss how to better prepare for future calamities jointly.
  • Consider the needs of the news audience before, during, and after a situation occurs, namey a) Who are these audiences? b) What are their needs during different phases? c) What is the priority order of these needs? d) How can news media respond to these needs?

Newsroom recommendations in case of disasters

Before disaster strikes, the general public and government/policymakers are the most important stakeholders:

  • The general public needs to be prepared in advance, alerted about a disaster’s timing and probable location, and informed about evacuation procedures. 
  • On the other hand, policymakers must design resilient infrastructure to cope with disasters, fund scientific research for understanding and preparedness, and develop disaster mitigation plans.

During the occurrence of a disaster, the most important stakeholders remain the general public, as ensuring their safety becomes the utmost priority: 

  • People must have access to reliable information to aid mutual assistance and seek rescue. 
  • The second important stakeholders are governments and emergency service departments, responsible for commanding and mobilising resources to protect the public and continually disseminate information nationwide.

After the disaster, the most important stakeholders include news media professionals, the general public, government agencies, followed by scientists and science-media-related organisations. 

  • News media professionals must continue gathering facts, conducting follow-up reports, analysing the event’s impact, and providing different perspectives to facilitate positive changes. 
  • The general public needs to learn how to recover from the aftermath of the disaster and prepare in advance for the next calamity. 
  • Government agencies, scientists, and science-media-related organisations should conduct post-disaster reviews and contemplate how to improve their response to future events.

Newsroom outputs should be visually appealing and interactive and could be disaster-ready by offering:

  • Real-time updated maps
  • Statistical dashboards
  • Expert and survivor interviews in the form of articles, videos, photos, audio stories

Real-life application scenarios

Participants workshopped scenarios to explore what newsrooms might do before, during and after wildfires, earthquakes and cyclones.

1️⃣ Earthquake

Focused on earthquakes, this group proposed a knowledge collaboration centre to bring together journalists, scientists, government officials, and technical experts from different countries as a centralised source of information during major earthquakes. A website would provide satellite images, research reports, data information, and interviews that both journalists and researchers could utilise.

The centre could customise its services based on the needs of different news organisations, assisting in creating textual, video, or other forms of information. The centre could also facilitate direct communication among journalists to obtain specific and timely information. Funding would be sought to operationalise this proposal to help news organisations enhance their capabilities in presenting information effectively and increasing public awareness and understanding of disasters.

2️⃣ Cyclone

An initiative to limit the impact of cyclones could develop a standard operating procedure called CARE; Collaborate, Assist, Relate, and Educate. The goal is to establish a seamless flow of information and support among stakeholders, creating an effective ecosystem that involves media, local governments, emergency services, and the audience to enable smooth communication and timely accessibility of support during cyclone events.

The plan involves cooperation with international, local, and regional media, non-governmental organisations, local governments, emergency services, and the scientific community. Collaborative relationships must be established during the preparation phase to ensure readiness. When a cyclone occurs, information dissemination becomes a primary task. Various channels will be utilised, such as apps, dashboards with podcasts, and social media platforms like TikTok and YouTube. Reporters will be dispatched to gather information on-site and share the latest updates, and research data will be presented in an understandable and relevant manner to the affected audience.

3️⃣ Wildfire

The group proposed developing an engaging, educational website called “Be Wild, Stop Fire” to provide comprehensive information and a complete guide to wildfire safety. The website would have three sections: 

Before the wildfire: includes beautiful forest photos, travel guides, information about the local ecosystem, animals, and trees, as well as guidelines on what to do and what not to do during camping trips.

During the wildfire:  provides real-time data, contact information for authorities and affected individuals, scientific explanations about wildfires, and ways to contribute through volunteering or donations.

After the wildfire: involves discussions by experts about the impact of wildfires on humans, communities, the economy, and wildlife. It also covers efforts for rebuilding and preventing future wildfires.

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The information, opinions and recommendations presented by our guests are those of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the values and beliefs of the International Science Council.

Image by Michael Held on Unsplash.

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