Ash Center: Covering Disasters in Southeast Asia

March 1, 2012
Ash Center: Covering Disasters in Southeast Asia
Evacuees during 2011 Thailand floods

Associated Press Reporter Offers Perspective
By David Giles

In December 2011, the Ash Center’s Program on Crisis Leadership (PCL) welcomed back to Harvard Margie Mason, who studied at the Harvard School of Public Health on a Nieman Foundation Fellowship in 2009. She has reported from more than 20 countries, covering some of the worst natural disasters in recent history—including the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami; Cyclone Nargis, which devastated Myanmar in 2008; and major floods that swept through Pakistan in 2010 and Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam a year later.

In her talk, “Covering Disasters in Southeast Asia: A Reporter’s Perspective,” Mason reflected on her experiences reporting on these events, as well as a variety of other crises that have occurred in a region highly vulnerable to seismic activity, the effects of climate change, and emergent infectious disease.

In addition to discussing basic logistical concerns, such as the difficulties of finding support staff to navigate foreign cultures, Mason described the challenges of writing stories that attract public attention and that adequately capture the extent of devastation following a disaster. In particular, she noted the frustration she has felt upon realizing that some emergencies have gone unnoticed and underreported.

This, she said, was the case with the Pakistan floods of 2010, which caused extensive damage across an area the size of the state of Florida, but at first received limited if any international attention. Conversely, the floods that swept through Thailand in the fall of 2011 seemed to dominate the news from almost the very start.

Mason identified several key factors that may have accounted for the difference, including the phenomenon of “disaster fatigue,” which she speculated had likely set in by the time of the Pakistan floods. (Already in 2010, both Haiti and Chile had experienced severe earthquakes, which were widely reported by media outlets from around the world.) Moreover, she continued, while the flooding in Pakistan affected relatively remote areas of the country that were largely unfamiliar to the American and European public, the floods in Thailand threatened Bangkok, the country’s capital city and a hub for international business and travel.

Mason explained that in developing stories about disaster events, she seeks to identify and raise awareness about issues that may otherwise go overlooked. For example, during the 2011 floods, she noticed that children accounted for a high percentage of reported fatalities. This fact was of particular interest to her, as it related to the broader, ongoing problem of drowning among children throughout the region, due to their inability to swim. “I used this grim statistic to dig deeper and look at how this happens every day in Asia without anyone noticing,” she said.

During the talk, Mason also made a case for the continued relevance of professional international reporting. Noting that websites and other media platforms have increasingly turned to citizen journalists to obtain updates and photos from the scene of a disaster, she argued that trained journalists continue to provide invaluable context and analysis.

“It’s not just photos and video,” Mason observed. “You need to have some understanding [of the culture and the area] to be able to interpret and read between the lines.”

Mason noted that despite the tragic subject matter of many of her stories, she has found great value in being able to give voice to those who have endured such devastating events. “To me,” she concluded, “there is no greater reward than when a survivor takes my hand after an interview, often weeping, and says thank you for coming, thank you for listening.”

Organized as part of PCL’s Disaster Management in Asia seminar series, Covering Disasters in Southeast Asia was co-sponsored by the Harvard University Asia Center and Harvard’s Nieman Foundation for Journalism. It was moderated by Arnold Howitt, Ash Center executive director and PCL co-director.