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The Role of Media in Post Disaster Christchurch- thank goodness for social media

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The Press

The Press (Photo credit: KiwiHugger)

I was interested to read the piece written by the editor of the Christchurch Press, Joanna Norris, in the Press on the 22 March 2013. (See http://www.stuff.co.nz/the-press/opinion/8458406/Our-city-must-not-settle-for-mediocrity). Yet around town I sense a growing uneasiness around the under reporting or biased reporting of events in Canterbury. The uncertainty does not stop there – it flows into uncertainty about TV1 and National Radio where little gets reported about events transpiring in Christchurch, which can be clearly contrasted with TV3.  The strong responses to the Press article from the public make it clear that many feel that the Press is biased/controlled in its affiliations and consequently also in its reporting, as this quote suggests, “I honestly could not believe what I read. Clearly the editors alliances are with CERA and Brownlee which reinforces their position of the recovery being about commercial recovery with the residents a very distant second. As residents face their third winter in broken houses, with mould, I wonder how can the Press feel so thankful to them. Maybe you need to move your office from out of the Central Business District to the community so your perspective is based in reality. I lost all faith in the Press when they published that article on why we should all be so grateful that was written by a SR employee but the Press did not think that was worthy to point out.” LTLL, in http://www.stuff.co.nz/the-press/opinion/8458406/Our-city-must-not-settle-for-mediocrity.Immediately after the earthquakes we saw over-reporting of the ‘drama’ of the events. As time has passed, that has faded away to be occasionally revisited at the annual commemorations. Now there is a concentration on individual cases, the insurance plight of a couple here or a family there. But there are so many of these cases that the media could print or run a story every night for the next five years and then some. Yet it is the major underlying unresolved issues that should be the focus of the media’s attention.Clearly from a media perspective, disasters have inherent public appeal – they are the ‘big stories’ and often attract the large audiences. In fact there are those who would say that the Christchurch Earthquakes and subsequent drama have been the saving grace for the Christchurch Press, which had a dwindling readership prior to the devastating events in Canterbury in 2010.In producing the ‘news’ and reporting on events, I believe that the Press should play a critical role in gathering, selecting and disseminating information about post-disaster activities and events. Therefore disaster reporting is clearly linked to what is judged to be newsworthy about particular events. Decisions about what and how much to cover with respect to specific events are rooted in judgments about the social value of disaster victims and on conceptions of social distance/difference and justice.

It is also true that the media have a long record of portraying non mainstream groups, especially minority group members, in stereotypical ways, so it should come as no surprise that these same framing conventions will also influence reporting.  Media practices and judgments regarding newsworthiness, as well as media stereotyping, are undeniably important factors in the production of disaster news. Discussions on why media portrayals of disasters and their victims so often deviate from what is actually happening on the ground, centre around reporting conventions that lead media organizations to focus only on dramatic and exceptional behaviour.

Even within the current mediocre paradigm, there is no doubt that television, radio and newspapers do influence the attitude and behaviour of individuals and organizations post disaster, throughout not only the affected region but also the wider New Zealand community. Though it is clear that the predicaments faced by many Cantabrians get not much further than Arthur’s Pass in the main, messages contained in the media and in official discourse during this disaster leave indelible impressions on the public and provide the de-facto justification for official actions that are undertaken to manage the disaster. The media vigorously promotes or ignores certain images. And often they have little ability to verify what was actually happening in parts of the impacted region. It is also clear that the media lacks specialists in disaster related phenomena, particularly those involving individual, group, and organizational behaviour.

The consequences at the macro level are more sinister however. The media treatments of disasters both reflect and reinforce broader societal and cultural trends which support the status quo and the interests of ‘elites’ as the following quote suggests, “The Press – serving brickbats to anything the government is doing and giving a free pass to political opposition, as with the majority of mainstream media outlets in NZ these days. No politician deserves a free pass, regardless of their political party/viewpoint etc.” by Reality 64.

Disaster reporting clearly serves broader political purposes. Myths and half-truths concerning the public, the dangers presented by transparent dissemination of information, and the threat disaster victims pose to the social order serve to justify policy stances adopted by CERA, law enforcement entities and other institutions concerned with social control.

Yet disasters can and should be great opportunities – focusing events – that bring changes in laws, policies, and institutional arrangements which go toward improving the way a Nation interacts with its citizens and handles itself in times of disaster. I have yet to see this happen in Canterbury or as a result of this disaster. Rather, it is arguable that the media’s focus is often highly skewed toward the role of the official response and official management of public-side activities as the following quote would indicate,

If you want to invite all of us to work with The Press then the first thing you can do is stop picking and choosing which comments to publish and which you send to the black hole. All comments should be published unless they are abusive in some way.” by Steve L.

Our saving grace has become modern technology!  We, the public have the ability to balance the lack of information or the inaccuracy of information by expanding the information arena of disaster. This is achieved through various on-line media forums which contribute to wide-scale interaction that is collectively resourceful, self-policing, and generative of information that is otherwise hard to obtain. Peer-to-peer communications through social media such as social networking sites, text and instant messaging applications, blogs, wikis and other web forums, have been steadily growing as a means of supporting additional, often critical and accurate, dissemination of information within the public sphere. Tens of these information hubs have sprung up in Christchurch. Behind the scenes there is a dearth of information exchanging hands and being created. No longer are people isolated, they are using social media to fill the communication gap which is generated by the mainstream media. Social media provide the opportunity for the public to actively engage in the creation of information and acquire knowledge, rather than to be passive consumers. This is a way of counteracting the imbalance of access to critical information which would assist them in resolving some of the problems they face – such as the resolution of insurance claims and dealings with organizations such as CERA and EQC.

The Christchurch Press, sadly, has arguably come to represent an ingrained view of unidirectional, official-to-public information dissemination which is being called into question more than ever before.  The media and/or public officials are not providing the information they should provide to us, so people and communities have to be locally self-supporting to possess sufficient resilience to respond to and overcome the obstacles they face. Is the Press an obstacle or an asset- what do you think?

People contribute and by doing so, are better able to cope with the enormity of the situation. Stress that comes from the inability to find accurate and relevant information is magnified in potentially life-changing situations. People who have access to information, make rational choices from their research.  These sources of information serve in the role of information brokers or “technical facilitators” as they assist connecting people and information. All kinds of affected citizens with all sorts of skills collect and collate statistics, generate data mash-ups, and create web-forums. Some have expert experience or insider knowledge through their personal networks and often have connections to government personnel. Others are local residents who help establish mailing lists, distribute information by email, or contribute to discussion groups. Still others create personal blogs or discussion forums to facilitate communication and information exchange among friends and community members. It is clear from the popularity of these social media forums that they now have a major role in providing a form of information error-correction.  I suggest that as a populous we, the public, will begin to rely less on “Politbureau’s’ broadsheets everywhere……. as we are neither blind nor stupid!

What we need to see are the serious questions asked and hold those who are accountable, to answer them? Afterall you have just been presented with a perfect opportunity. (See http://www.stuff.co.nz/the-press/business/the-rebuild/8470970/EQC-needs-to-be-more-transparent). And in the event that you haven’t quite got the story line clear this is it in the words of ‘Another Tui’,

No wonder Key and Brownlee are frantically trying to downplay this story – “EQC had said $55,000 was too much and had cash settled for $30,000 with the homeowner. But the spreadsheet showed EQC has allocated $59,000 for repairs” It’s the content of the excel spreadsheet that’s the real story!!!!”

~Future Proofing for a sustainable, participatory, democratic society.

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Author: Sarah Miles

Trained as a lawyer, psychotherapist and mediator. My goal is to make my voice heard for the causes in which I believe so as to improve and contribute to a more sustainable and equitable society. I believe in the enormous power of the human spirit and the power within each of us to effect major change. "The only triumph over evil is for good men [and women] to do nothing". https://thechristchurchfiasco.wordpress.com/

2 thoughts on “The Role of Media in Post Disaster Christchurch- thank goodness for social media

  1. Audit, Audit, Audit – It is becoming increasingly clear that there is some very dodgy stuff going down at EQC. Let’s not forget that it’s our money they are manipulating. There’s a definite whiff of fraud in my view. Where’s Winston Peters, just when we need him??

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  2. Great article. I have just been complaining this week that the media need to take more responsibility on what they are reporting. They need to stop reporting on the extreme cases, people with bad credit ratings not able to find rental properties, low socio economic groups not being able to afford heating etc. While these are sad stories, they were likely to happen regardless of the earthquakes. There are many more thousands of us who can heat our properties but dont believe it is fair we have bills around $600 a month to do so (combination of power and wood), we dont know what is happening with our houses and we are under constant stress just to find out the bare basics. Not to mention having to be self taught experts in some very technical information, that is usually only part released. We have a little one and another on the way, we have liquefaction under the entire footprint of our house. It makes the floors freezing (yes carpeted floors), heat transfers and ventilation systems can not keep up with the dampness, mould starting to appear. We have all worked hard to buy properties, maintain them and pay our insurances. Now we pay increased insurances on houses that are not worth anything, the damage continues to worsen and we see no action from those insurers we ensured we paid, in full and on time. Hoping we would never have to claim on them, and now finding that making the claim is a whole new nightmare.

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