Lessons for media in Gabrielle’s wild embrace

As immediate dangers recede, we will see and hear more and more in the media about the lessons to be learned from Cyclone Gabrielle’s devastation. Several of those insights relate to the news media themselves.

First, however, news teams can stand proudly beside those who responded to the national emergency. Reporters, visual journalists, anchors, news executives, production teams and technicians did the industry proud in bringing vital information to the public. They more than vindicated the heading on this commentary a week ago: Thank God for news media in a storm.

We watched, listened, and read as contact with large areas of the North Island were cut off by raging water, as houses and livelihoods were swept away, and as the cost in human lives began to mount. For some, electricity and Internet were cut and even the media horizon shrank, sometimes to nothing if there were no batteries for that transistor radio retrieved from a bottom drawer. And news teams in those blacked-out areas used all their ingenuity to keep reporting and to maintain contact with the outside world as they moved through the broken landscape.

They all did very well, and I say that with a good deal more conviction (and awareness) than Young Mr Grace intoned in Are You Being Served? Well, not quite everyone, but I will return to that.

In times of adversity, news organisations can rise to heights they never imagined. I am reminded of an event a quarter of a century ago when the Red River flooded, inundating the city of Grand Forks in North Dakota. Floodwater was followed by fire, which destroyed much of the downtown area including the newsroom and production plant of the Grand Forks Herald. Editor Mike Jacobs and his staff kept that paper publishing, bringing vital information to a traumatised public. ‘News’ became simple things like “Johnny Smith from Highway 64 is safe” and “This is a simple recipe for bleach”. Then the paper committed itself to the rebuild and won a Pulitzer Prize for its efforts.

There were hints of the Grand Forks Herald in the special editions produced by Chris Hyde and his team on Hawkes Bay Today, distributed free of charge, that were packed with vital information, updates on the levels of damage, and uplifting stories of courage and stoicism.

Where there was power, people sat wide-eyed at the ruin revealed in rolling coverage by TVNZ and Newshub. Radio networks repurposed their programmes to provide up-to-the minute information and coverage. Newspapers provided us with the record of what had been visited upon the country.

This week, as New Zealand moves from rescue to recovery, this former (very well, old) editor will take a few moments to reflect on what we might learn from last week that could be useful when (not if) nature again vents her fury on us.

The power of images

Nothing brings home the power and scale of destruction like a video clip or photograph. Nothing conveys the human condition as well as when it is captured as a precise moment in time.

Let me illustrate.

I read numerous, often very well written, stories about remarkable acts of survival and reunion with worried whanau, but nothing brought home the impact of finding a missing loved one like a photograph by Chris Skelton of Stuff. It showed two brothers embracing in a sea of silt and debris that had engulfed a house in the Esk Valley. Phillip Barber had believed his brother Chris and his family were dead.

I heard and read about what people had lost in the floodwater and slips. Yet, for me, it was all summed up in a photograph by Juan Zarama Perini (also from Stuff) of mud-encrusted Bill Eshleman holding three plastic carry bags containing all his salvaged possessions.

In Auckland, the sheer scale of the slip that cost the lives of two volunteer firefighters was brought home by aerial news footage. Videographers and drone operators from both networks graphically showed the extent of flooding in Hawkes Bay and the catastrophic damage wrought by forestry slash.

Yet the lasting image of the destructive power of forestry waste is an image by Hawkes Bay Today photographer Warren Buckland of an Esk Valley house half covered with forestry slash in which two vehicles – one turned on its roof – were entrapped.

The power of images both moving and still was not lost on newsrooms. They were used to good effect. Even radio broadcasters saw their value and featured them prominently on websites.

The lesson here is that news organisations need to maintain a meaningful cadre of professional photographers and videographers. Yes, reporters and members of the public can capture events on mobile phones but when I analyse the images and footage that stick in the mind, it is the work of professionals that stands out. Some say the iPhone has made all of us photographers and videographers, but the truth is we take the sort of snapshot once recorded on a Box Brownie. The striking image still requires the ability to pick what French photographic master Henri Cartier-Bresson called The Decisive Moment. Professionals know where to find it but amateurs, at best, stumble on it by accident.

There’s a time and place for everything

Talkback radio thrives on listeners with bees in their bonnets, which is why so many hosts take on a contrarian persona. It works well, makes lots of money, and elevates contrarian broadcasters to an exalted status.

However, naysaying should take a back seat when the primary need is for accurate information. That requirement was somewhat lost on NewstalkZB’s morning hosts as Cyclone Gabrielle began to make itself felt. They questioned the urgency and the likely impact of the weather system. That may have gone down well with the contrarian section of their audience, but it raised questions about the official information that was being distributed. There was also a politicising of aspects of the damage as it emerged.

There is a clear lesson that radio management must order hosts to do nothing to undermine official information in times of emergency. If that means keeping their all-important opinions to themselves in order to maintain trust in what the public are being told by emergency management personnel, so be it. There will be plenty of time later to indulge their personal viewpoints.

The fragility of communications

Satellite phones are no longer a novelty and, as the cell phone towers blinked out during the cyclone they came into their own.

The blacking out of large parts of the East Coast and Hawkes Bay brought home the need for such technology. It also demonstrated the need to position satellite phones in regional offices and, perhaps, even at pick-up points in areas beyond the usual range of a particular newsroom.

Power cuts also highlighted the need for news crews and individual journalists to keep fully charged spare batteries and power packs (plural) in their grab bags.

Beyond that practical requirement for newsgathering, there is a more widespread communications lesson to be learned from Cyclone Gabrielle. It is the ongoing need for radio broadcasting in times of disaster. Radio New Zealand National is the designated Civil Defence lifeline utility radio broadcaster for all regions of New Zealand and it proved its worth last week.

A friend in Hawkes Bay was without power or Internet connections for four days. His only means of receiving up to date information was from an old transistor radio. He was grateful for the link but the what he heard was a mixed bag. RNZ gave him a good overview of the wider effects but local contributions were patchy and interspersed with unhelpful networked content. He was particularly annoyed by continuing suggestions to go to particular websites for further information when he couldn’t boil the kettle let alone access the Internet.

The variable value of what my friend heard should not detract from the fact that at least radio provided him with a source of information. It does suggest, however, the need for a coordinated emergency protocol covering all radio broadcasters, not just the designated emergency broadcaster. This would be particularly useful at the local level.

However, I’m not sure how long we can rely on radio as an emergency broadcaster in any form. Public broadcasters like the BBC and Australia’s ABC are already planning for their digital cut-over – the date (or dates) they will cease linear broadcasting. At some point that will happen in most developed countries, including New Zealand. Then what happens to designated emergency broadcasters like RNZ?

At some point streaming and podcasts will consign transistors radios to the same scrap heap as cassettes and floppy disks. What then, when there is no power, no Internet, and no cell phone coverage?

Gabrielle is telling us we need a robust, always-accessible means of emergency communication. Perhaps there should be an international requirement that mobile phone manufacturers must include a radio chip (some do) in all of their handsets. Or maybe we all need emergency direct connection of a satellite system such as Starlink. Either way, we need to start thinking now about community-wide emergency communication is maintained.

Scarce resources

In wide-scale emergencies such as we have just experienced, every news organisation is stretched to its absolute limits. Rolling coverage that extends over many hours a day has an enormous appetite for content and events in areas outside the main centres create logistical nightmares.

New Zealand is a small country with meagre media resources that continue to shrink. And, while we have a small population, our country stretches an awfully long way (1600 kilometres to be exact) and has some decidedly lumpy terrain. No media organisation can say, hand on heart, that it has it comprehensively covered by on-the-ground news staff.

While each news organisation did a commendable job with the resources at hand, there were gaps and catch-ups. Some were slower to a location than others. As the crisis went on, outlets had to rotate staff (if only to let those in the field get a decent shower). Over time, fatigue sets in and this disaster isn’t over yet.

There was, by all accounts, some commendable cooperation between outlets and I am sure those in the field followed the time-honoured practice of helping out a colleague when the going got too tough or equipment gave up the ghost.

I think back to the days of the New Zealand Press Association news cooperative binding the country’s newspapers and the way it allowed news editors to pull together disaster coverage from a variety of sources including local news outlets and reporters ‘parachuted’ into the area. The wider the disaster area, the more useful the cooperative became. That happens now to a more limited degree but on an ad-hoc basis in deals between individual organisations.

The events of the past week, together with the Auckland Anniversary floods and the certainty of future severe weather events, tells me it is time for our mainstream media – and that includes the digital news and current affairs start-ups – to sit down for a serious talk about a new news cooperative. They can draw on an earlier model that should have been expanded beyond newspapers but which (with a spectacular lack of foresight) was killed off.


One thought on “Lessons for media in Gabrielle’s wild embrace

  1. Many thanks Gavin, really enjoy your views on events, very insightful on how the media works
    I keep up to date with you with NetNewsWire (RSS), so keep that RSS link please

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