Humanitarian reporting: Why coverage of the Turkey and Syria earthquakes should amplify marginalised voices

March 8, 2023 • Digital News, Ethics and Quality, Recent • by

People search through the rubble for loved ones lost in the earthquake in Syria and Turkey. Aleppo, Syria, February 12, 2023. Image from Shutterstock

The recent earthquakes in Turkey and Syria, which claimed thousands of lives, attracted coverage from various international media outlets. However, much of this coverage, especially in the immediate aftermath of the earthquakes, as is often the case, was dominated by ‘immediate’ concerns, such as the magnitude of the earthquakes, the rising death toll, the injured and the displaced, the damage to buildings and cities, and rescue operations. At the same time, digital platforms and aid agencies have also played a key role in amplifying the voices of those on the ground. Such coverage of the disaster on both traditional and digital outlets highlights various issues and debates on the media’s role in reporting disasters and humanitarian crises. 


The dominant narratives in reporting the earthquakes 


International media organisations such as the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), AlJazeera, Sky News, and CNN, among others, have played an important role in reporting earthquakes to their audiences. Amidst coverage of the state of destruction were also various emotive and powerful stories of pain and despair as well as narratives of rescue, survival, and resilience. Media coverage has also focused on rescue operations, including efforts by international rescue teams, while channels such as Al Jazeera have highlighted the voices of volunteers and rescue operators on the ground. Stories have also been told from the viewpoints of various international non-governmental organisations (INGOs), such as Save the Children, Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) and Red Cross, which are on the ground helping survivors. 


In some cases, outlets such as the BBC have been providing live reports from its correspondents based in Antakya, Adana, and Kahramanmaras and kept audiences up to date on the death toll in Turkey using figures from official sources including Turkish Vice-President Fuat Oktay, the Turkish disaster agency and Turkey’s Anadolu state news agency. 


As for Syria, the White Helmets – the volunteer Syrian civil defence that has been working to rescue people in the rebel-controlled areas of the country – have been sharing their death toll for some areas of the country. The Syrian government also regularly updates its own toll for the areas controlled by Damascus, and media organisations such as the BBC have received reports from its reporters in Aleppo


Digital technologies in reporting disasters 


Social media platforms such as Twitter, TikTok and Facebook have also amplified the voices of survivors and NGO actors helping them, demonstrating the role of digital platforms in reporting humanitarian crises. This was evident, for example, when survivors used the platforms to get their stories out and call for help by tweeting that they themselves or their loved ones remain under rubble and have not received assistance since the earthquake hit. In addition, reports about families waiting to retrieve their relatives, anger about flawed building practices and urban development, and the state of destruction have been accompanied by live updates, satellite images, and drone videos of collapsed buildings and damaged infrastructure. Stories on Twitter have featured images showing the before and after of buildings. International news agencies have also used user-generated content in reporting on the earthquakes. Yet, Western outlets also reported instances of restricted access to social media in Turkey


Challenges and criticisms of humanitarian reporting 


Media coverage is necessary to convey the enormity of a disaster. Scholars Martin Scott, Mel Bunce, and Kate Wright (2022) have discussed this and the role of media coverage in influencing humanitarian aid allocations of governments. Sudden and intense news coverage of disasters can mobilise the public, leading to more charitable giving, as was seen in the aftermath of the 2004 Asian Tsunami. Such responses from the public can put pressure on governments and encourage changes in domestic and foreign aid policies.


However, in the weeks following a disaster, the intensity of the coverage tends to drop. For example, while mainstream international media intensely covered the devastating earthquake in Afghanistan in June 2022, there has been little coverage since then. There is also a tendency to ‘rank’ earthquakes and disasters based on their magnitude. The Syria and Turkey earthquakes have also been recognised as being among the deadliest earthquakes, along with similar disasters in Haiti (2021), Indonesia (2018), Nepal (2015), and Haiti (2010). Yet, Susan Moeller (2006) highlights, there is often limited coverage of the recovery and reconstruction processes, which are seen as “less dramatic,” apart from the “perfunctory anniversary pieces.” 


The need for amplifying marginalised voices 


As countries worldwide continue to face devastating crises, there is a danger that some disasters can be forgotten. In addition, against the backdrop of reports of media control and access, humanitarian aid agencies and organisations have called for a human rights approach to crisis response, emphasising the importance of media freedom that can also help prevent disinformation. In continuing media reporting in the aftermath of the disasters, as scholars Martin Scott, Mel Bunce, and Kate Wright argue, there is a need to reject cultural familiarity and amplify local and marginalised voices, including those of rescue workers, think tanks, and local volunteers. According to these academics, this would be crucial “to provide audiences with a more accurate picture of the realities on the ground and identify alternative ways of addressing an issue,” while also presenting “those connected to humanitarian affairs with more agency and dignity”.


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