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Critique of Worldwide Media Coverage

Aired January 2, 2005 - 15:30:00   ET


RICHARD QUEST, CNN ANCHOR: Hello. I'm Richard Quest, in London. Welcome to CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, where we examine how the media are covering the big story.
And, of course, the end of the year and yet just one event dominates the news. The tsunamis that tore through southern Asia.

The tragedy began with a titanic earthquake deep in the Indian Ocean. The waves that followed killed indiscriminately. Young, old, rich and poor. From Thailand, across to India, Sri Lanka to Indonesia. More than 100,000 people have been killed and that number continues to rise. Many more were injured and millions more have lost everything they had.

ITV's correspondent John Irvine was on holiday in Thailand with his family and he described the chaos.


JOHN IRVINE, ITV CORRESPONDENT: I looked frantically for my five- year-old son, Peter. He was mesmerized, hypnotized, so I just sprinted for the boy and I grabbed him. My wife yelled for me to get into the bungalow, but I knew that Peter and I wouldn't make it, so we headed at right angles from the wave and I just ran as hard as I could.


QUEST: From that moment, John's been covering the disaster, along with dozens of reporters from around the world.

So let us discuss the media's role. Joining me to discuss this is Ravi Trasad, the correspondent for United Press International and Guy Pelham, from the BBC's news gathering team.

We are short on time with the satellite, Guy, so bear with me if I go first of all to Ravi Trasad.

Ravi, when all is said and done here, what will be the test, your personal test, that you will have judged you to have done justice to this story?

RAVI TRASAD, UNITED PRESS INTL.: Well, the more I write about the people who have suffered, the more I write about the children who have been orphaned, and if that makes a difference to these people and they get aid and the aid agencies wake up after reading these news reports, then perhaps I think I will have done justice to what I am covering right now.

Like in the past when there was earthquake in Latur in 1993 and I was based in India and the coverage that we did in Latur, and the kind of work we all did, brought a lot of aid to that country and a lot of aid to people who had suffered in that earthquake.

I suppose the same thing will happen here. If we all continue doing what we are doing, and we continue to give publicity and also highlight the plight of the people, it will help.

QUEST: Guy Pelham, from the BBC, deploying large numbers of people, very short period of time. I mean, this is meat and veg in your business.

GUY PELHAM, BBC: That's true, although clearly on a scale that we're seeing now, it's a task that I don't think any of us has seen for the last decade or two, and given the amount of technology that we can now put into the field, the number of people that we can send quickly into the field, frankly I don't think anybody has ever come across this kind of deployment before.

QUEST: It is said that our true test of mettle will be how we cover not just a disaster, but the aftermath, the reconstruction, and the future. What would you make of that?

TRASAD: Indeed. It is a big challenge for the journalist because generally what happens after a disaster, and we keep covering that disaster and then another disaster takes place and the entire focus shifts to that disaster, and there is no follow-up.

In this case, I think journalists like me, who are based here, will continue to cover the disaster and the aftermath of the disaster and the reconstruction. Unless we do that, there won't be any pressure on the government. It's because of the international journalists and journalists locally working here and their reports that there is a lot of pressure on the government to work hard, work quickly, and reconstruct the country very fast.

If you look at what's happening in the north and east, it was because of the reports that we all did that the government came under pressure, they sent a team to the north which met the Tamil Tigers. They had a discussion, they've come to an agreement to work together.

So journalists do play a role in the reconstruction also.

QUEST: So, Guy Pelham, you say deployment of this size and scale, but it's not as big as, for example, in terms of numbers of people sent to, for example, the Gulf War, or even maybe 9/11. It's the speed and the difficulty of the geographical nature perhaps.

PELHAM: I think that's true. I mean, here with this particular tragedy, we're looking at a sweep across Southeast Asia into South Asia, India, Sri Lanka and even into the East Coast of Africa, and although the stories that you mentioned, the Gulf War for example, was enormous, we knew about it, we could predict that it was going to happen and we had time to put our people into position. That's not the case this time.

QUEST: One major criticism is often leveled at both of our organizations in that we become -- we look upon these stories as foreigners. We forget that we are -- we are concerned, in the BBC's case the British people, in CNN's case maybe about the American tourists, or even in both our cases we are concerned with white foreigners rather than local indigenous.

PELHAM: I think that is an accusation that can be leveled. I hope that we are able to rise about that.

Inevitably, we are drawn to places where communications are easy -- relatively easy. It's relatively easy to get to places like Fuket (ph), in Thailand, where there are a number of white people who are dead or missing.

I think the challenge that we have is actually to go beyond that and report the far greater impact on the people who live, who are from that entire sweep, from Southeast Asia right around to Sri Lanka.

QUEST: I'm wondering, when -- because look at next year's agenda, and already in January we have the Palestinian elections, we have the Iraqi elections.

PELHAM: Exactly.

QUEST: Is it going to be very difficult for your world news editor and for those correspondents in those countries to get themselves back on air come January, with the rebuilding, with the death and destruction, because they won't be digging up bodies, they won't be finding rubble by then.

PELHAM: Inevitably, there is going to be a shift of emphasis as news stories in the months to come take the limelight. But I think it's a measure of the success of coverage by the BBC and any global broadcasting organization that they don't just focus on the next big thing, that they actually are there for the long term.

QUEST: Many thanks, Guy, for coming in. Ravi Trasad, from UPI International joining us from Colombo in Sri Lanka. Many thanks indeed gentlemen for joining us.

Coming up next on INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, should broadcasters play a part in warning people of a looming crisis? We explore the issues.


QUEST: Welcome back.

The earthquake sent massive waves crashing into coastlines across South Asia. There was at least an hour between the underwater shutter and the walls of water hitting land, enough time, some say, for those on or near the beach to be told to move.

As we know, there was insufficient warning. No official system covers the entire Indian Ocean in the same way as it does the Pacific.

Should we as global broadcasters have stepped in? Do we have responsibility in that regard?

I've had several e-mails from you viewers saying that TV networks have an obligation.

One London viewer asked me if "CNN would have made the information public if it had been asked to." Is that part of our role and our duty, to be an emergency broadcasting service when these sort of events happen?

To discuss this further I'm joined by Nick Wrenn, CNN's managing editor for Europe, Africa and the Middle East and Roger Mosey, the head of television news for the BBC.

Gentlemen, you're both here substantially because of CNN International and BBC World you have the geographic reach that would make it possible for you to be an early warning system.

Roger Mosey, is that realistic?

ROGER MOSEY, BBC WORLD: I would be really interested in trying to do that, because when you see the scale of this disaster, anything that broadcasters could do to help people, warn people, would obviously be something that we would want to take on.

The BBC does have an emergency role in the United Kingdom and we do have established procedures for warning people or for being an emergency broadcasting system in the United Kingdom.

At the moment, the systems are not in place for that to be done on a global basis, but I think we should now look at that.

QUEST: Nick Wrenn, is that something that CNN -- I know this has not been discussed at senior level, but if somebody was to wave a flag in your direction and say, Ren, have a look at this, would you be interested in doing it?

NICK WRENN, CNN INTERNATIONAL: I think we've got to look at what we do. And we're a news broadcaster, and I would argue that first and foremost the best early warning system we can do is broadcast the news, and to do that we've got to see it as a story in the same way that we'd see any other story.

In other words, we'd have to check the facts. We'd have to be sure that the sourcing of the information was exactly up to our standards, and we'd have to make sure that, you know, we were dealing with something very, very serious. We wouldn't want to be speculating or doing any guesswork here.

QUEST: I suppose what I'm asking both of you gentlemen is to come off the fence. Let us say -- can you see a situation where a proper system is put in place, authenticated, factual, from reputable, whether it be the USGS in the United States or other sources. They ring you up and say code word red, there is a large wave, tell people in this country to get out of the way, or an earthquake, or a hurricane, or a volcano.

MOSEY: I think as Nick says it may be slightly less complicated than you're making it in that we would, if we had known initially about the earthquake and its size, we would have reported that. It would have been a news story. And as part of that reporting, you would have wanted to warn people of the consequences of it.

QUEST: No. There is a world of difference. A world of difference between reporting "There are reports of an earthquake" and actually saying "We are now going to tell you, this is going to happen. We have been told, get off the beach."

MOSEY: I agree with Nick. We would like to do it as long as it's proper, authenticated, factual, doesn't spread panic around the region unnecessarily. If there's a reason for moving people, do it. But that's why we need to have a system set in place by proper emergency authorities. It can't just be the broadcasters making it up. It's got to be something which is coordinated and international.

QUEST: You see, the interesting thing is that to some extent we are the only avenue, and tsunami warning system in the Indian Ocean would be horrendously expensive. We know that from the Pacific.

We have the satellites. We have the capability. All right, I'm tub thumping here on behalf of the viewers.

WRENN: What we must remember, though, is that I wouldn't want to give anybody else control of our airwaves, any other official authority that might want to say OK, we're in charge now, you know, we're going to put out this warning, we're going to use CNN airwaves to do it.

We'd have to keep total independence and total control of what we put out on our network.

QUEST: Let's shift to talk about the way in which the media, the way in which the broadcasters -- well, no, let's be honest. Let's shift to the way we have covered this story, because it is us we are talking about, and your organization and my organization.

Have we been tasteless, do you think, Roger Mosey, in the way we have shown the personal grief, the crying over bodies, the excessive use of dead bodies?

MOSEY: I think we have to be enormously careful about taste issues. We have to be absolutely clear we're not intruding unnecessarily or improperly into grief. Against which, we have to show the scale of this disasters. And if you look at the response from countries across the world to the disaster, that's partly because the reporting has been showing them the unvarnished truth about what has happened.

QUEST: What's the difference, Nick Wrenn, between the unvarnished truth here and the unvarnished truth on 9/11, when we were quite clear that we wouldn't show dead bodies, we were quite clear we wouldn't intrude into personal grief?

WRENN: I'm not sure that there is an obvious comparison to make here between this story and 9/11. You know, I don't want to go down that road.

What I would say, though, with this, like any other story with a disaster on this scale is that it's a very fine balancing act and, you know, in the news room we have to make decisions all the time as the story moves on about what pictures to use and what pictures not to use, and we have to -- we're dealing with a story the scale of which we've not dealt with before and the horror of which we've not dealt with before -- hang on a second.

So sometimes with the benefit of hindsight, you know, perhaps we get a little bit too close, but the decisions that we do take are always with the issues of sensitivity and respect for the dead in mind while at the same time not sanitizing the story.

QUEST: And yet some commentators are accusing you of hypocrisy.

MOSEY: I don't think so. I think there is a difficult issue about global broadcasters now as against domestic broadcasters, because there are some images we wouldn't show in the United Kingdom because of relatives and next of kin and friends who might be seeing those images. Those dimensions, those issues now change, given that the BBC and CNN and other broadcasters are truly global.

So there is a sense in which we're all everyone's neighbor now. I think some of those ethical dilemmas we face become more acute. But we always are trying to be drive by sensitivity.

QUEST: Do we continue our coverage -- I mean, I would expect you to say obviously yes, but what I mean is, two months down the road, three months down the road -- well, obviously, we won't have 50 or 60 people covering it, but how can our viewers in those parts of the world be assured of our organizations commitment for the reconstruction, for the failures in reconstruction, for the proper disbursement of aid is followed up with good investigative journalism -- Nick Wrenn.

WRENN: I think we've got to make sure that we do follow through on the story, that we don't go in there while the diaster happens and go straight out again.

The same time, we haven't got a clue what is around the corner. There are certain events in our diary which we know we're going to cover, but in terms of breaking news, you know, we just don't know how the year is going to unfold, so we're always going to have to respond on a day by day basis.

QUEST: The sheer level of emails that both organizations have received, perhaps this is -- maybe 9/11 was the first such tragedy of this nature, but this has also been an example. We're in a new area here, aren't we -- Roger Mosey.

MOSEY: Yes. I mean, the fact is now that you operate on three levels. Radio has been there for 70 or 80 years. Television in the last half century. And now you have the Internet as being something which supplements and expands on all your broadcasting. So all broadcasters now are tri-media or even more. I mean, viewers also. It's a two way process now. People contact us, we contact them, and it's something which in the scale of this tragedy it just brings home to you the extent to which audiences want to communicate about what has happened.

WRENN: And you know what struck me this week, Richard, was the way in which the Internet was a positive medium. We've heard so much over the last months and years about the evils of the Internet. Here we had the Internet being used to bring people together, to reunite people, as a means of support, of sharing information, and I think, you know, it should be shown in a positive light for that reason.

We, like the BBC, you know, have been absolutely amazed at the response that we've had.

QUEST: Gentlemen, many thanks indeed for joining us.

Now, that's all for this edition of INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS. I'm Richard Quest. Tune in again next time for another look at how we in the media are handling the big issues.

We leave you now with these haunting images from a region in ruin.



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