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Journalists trained to change perspective in reporting about disasters

A journalist training “Towards a new approach to disasters from consequences to causes – Covering disasters from a disaster risk reduction perspective” was organized jointly by UNISDR and UNESCO Bangkok. The one-day training for 20 journalists from different countries in Asia took place during the 5th Asian Ministerial Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in Yogyakarta, Indonesia on 22 October 2012.


“Journalists treat the incident and not the cause. We are talking about the impossible”, said a participant from South Korea at the training setting the frame for the media training: how to report about disasters before they actually occur and, thus, help to reduce their impact – if it actually happens and thus changing the perspective from reporting on disasters to reporting on disaster risk reduction. “Media has to overcome the traditional perception of journalism: “if it bleeds it leads”, said another participant from Philippines.

To equip the journalists with good reporting practice in DRR, Dieter Schlenker, Information and Knowledge Manager at UNESCO Bangkok presented UNESCO’s approved set of tools and methods and highlighted the importance of press freedom in disaster risk reporting. 

“What are the necessary conditions for quality media reporting before, during and after disasters strike,” he asked. To answer this, the UNESCO media indicators framework that calls for a landscape of press freedom and pluralistic and diverse media and UNESCO’s curricula for quality journalism education were presented. 

“As consequence of climate change and the growing occurrence of disasters, journalism education curricula should include skills development in climate change and DRR reporting”, said Mr. Schlenker. 

Also the consumer side should be looked at closely when reporting on DRR. Does the broad public understand the concept of DRR and can it make good use of DRR reporting for a better and safer life? 

To be successful, DRR stories must not only be convincing to the editors but avoid technical jargon and scientific complexity, be appealing to the communities and readers most affected by disasters and may therefore not have a DRR focus but rather include a DRR angle.

In the following presentation, Brigitte Leoni, Head of Regional Communications at UNISDR equipped the journalists with the necessary knowledge of main issues in DRR. 

“Hazards are natural. Disasters are not,” she said. Natural hazards are turned into disasters through human action, and more than 226 million people are affected worldwide by disasters every year.

“Asia is most at risk,” Ms Leoni said, and all participants agreed that the most severe and recurring disasters in Asia are floods. Also it became clear in the presentation that more people will be affected in the future, particularly in South Asia where as of today 60 million people of globally 200 million live in coastal flood zones.

As root causes for disasters in the region were identified: Climate Change, rapid and unplanned urbanization, poverty and environmental degradation. Based on the 2005-2015 Hyogo Framework of Action, it is UNISDR’s role as UN branch to help building disaster resilience of cities, communities and nations and reduce the impacts of disasters worldwide.

Following a few striking facts on disasters: 

• Half a million deaths and 40 million homeless after major disasters in Asia and the Pacific since 2004;

• Investing 1 US Dollar in DRR saves 7 Dollars in recovery efforts; 

• Women are 14 times more affected by disasters than men; 

• 175 million children are likely to be affected by climate-related disasters over the next decade. 


Facilitated by Marwaan Macan-Markar of Inter-Press Service Asia, the training continued by group work in mock-up editorial meetings where editors agreed on a type of DRR story to run. Confirming the role that media plays in promoting DRR, the participant from China said: “It is our responsibility as journalists to report about disasters”. 

One important aspect occurring in the afternoon exercise in creating stories on DRR was the educational scope of DRR. The participant from Myanmar highlighted the joint efforts of UNESCO and the Education Ministry in the aftermath of cyclone Nargis in 2008. The participant pointed out that media in the country since 2009 concentrated on the educational aspect of DRR and reported about early warning mechanisms, rehabilitation efforts, deforestation causing landslides and building codes for earthquake safety.  

Also the Thai example of reporting by the public service broadcaster Thai PBS showed a strong educational aspect in DRR reporting since the worst flood since decades that occurred in 2011. A weekly programme is since then dedicated to analyzing and educating people about early warning systems, scientific data and research, weather forecast mechanisms and meteorological indicators for cyclones, storms and potential floods.

If national or provincial governments are not responsive to improving disaster resilience or protecting the communities from disasters, media can have a strong voice pushing governments to response. 

“The media can shame governments to action,” said Mr. Macer pointing to the media role of political watchdog in calling for disaster preparedness measures and in revealing corruption and mismanagement.

The one-day training ended with the adoption of a “Media Statement on Disaster Risk Reduction  at the Fifth Asian Ministerial Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction”, signed by 15 media in Asia and the Pacific. In the declaration, the media outlets acknowledge the active role of media in promoting disaster risk reduction policies and in advancing the agenda at national and local level. Also the declaration highlighted the role of media in the early warning chain and as partners in educating communities and the most vulnerable groups. The media recognizes the power of communications in building the resilience of people and their role in working closer with disaster risk reduction partners to keep the audiences informed with the aim to saving more lives and protecting more assets against disasters.