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Journalists, Government Officials Cite Challenges in Covering Disasters

Participants discuss ways to keep disasters in the news.

Washington, D.C., March 8, 2005 – The tsunami’s devastation on Southeast Asia in late 2004 galvanized the media and resulted in widespread public attention, but other natural and man-made disasters often have not received enough focus, journalists and government officials said Monday at the Voice of America (VOA).

Joanne Silberner, a health policy correspondent for National Public Radio, said the tsunami story “grabbed people’s imaginations.” Although a lack of communications and infrastructure made it difficult to cover Indonesia after the tsunami, journalists flocked to the area, she said.

The result: numerous stories and an outpouring of financial support for tsunami victims. Other disasters, however, have proved harder for journalists to access.

Ken Isaacs, director of the U.S. Agency for International Development’s (USAID) Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, cited Sudan, which does not encourage journalists to tour the remote, war-torn Darfur region. The U.S. Congress has called killings in Darfur a genocide.

Accordingly, there has been less media coverage of Darfur, and of Sudan issues in general over the years, he said.

Dr. Joxel Garcia, deputy director of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), encouraged journalists to familiarize themselves with all aspects of a disaster, or potential disaster. In Haiti, for instance, deforestation has contributed to making the island prone to floods. Severe rains could easily lead to flooding and death, he said.

“One of the tools we have in public health is education,” Garcia said.

Silberner said journalists have an easier time telling a story when they get quick access to experts to explain stories. She said decision-makers “expect a perfect report,” even in a post-disaster situation. However, perfection is impossible under such conditions.

Alex Belida, VOA’s senior supervising editor, also urged journalists to stick with a story like post-tsunami Asia, covering it in-depth and over a period of time.

VOA organized the panel, Disaster and Disease: Covering Health in a Post-Tsunami World,” in conjunction with the release of a multimedia, health journalism CD-Rom for journalists and journalism students.

The first versions of the CD – in Spanish and English for the Caribbean – will be distributed. USAID provided support for the CD, along with Merck & Co., PAHO and others.

The Voice of America, which first went on the air in 1942, is a multimedia international broadcasting service funded by the U.S. government through the Broadcasting Board of Governors. VOA broadcasts more than 1,000 hours of news, information, educational, and cultural programming every week to an estimated worldwide audience of more than 100 million people. Programs are produced in 44 languages, including English.

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