Mal Fletcher
Tsunami - Staying The Distance

As of this week, more than 170,000 people have lost their lives in the Indian Ocean tsunami disaster.

Also as of this week, Sky News, Europe's largest satellite news broadcaster, has reduced its reporting and backup staff in the affected areas from 80 people to 27. ITV News has gone from 32 people on the ground to 19 across the region.

CNN still has 12 teams in the area, totalling around 50 people. This is a reduction from 80 people at the height of the disaster.

The level of media involvement is of course an indicator of public interest.

It is only natural that the level of reporting around such an event will drop off, as public attention is diverted to other world and domestic issues.

Mass media outlets tend to report what they know their audience will want to know about. So, we should expect the workforce on the ground to shrink over time.

Media people talk about 'disaster fatigue', where audiences grow tired of hearing about one story and express a desire to move on, even if the need left by the tragedy has not yet been fully filled.

To some extent, this reflects a natural human response.

There is, perhaps, no way that we could sustain forever a high level of involvement in something that has happened, at least as far as Europeans are concerned, so far from home.

It is natural that pressing issues closer to home will occupy our time as well.

However, we should not allow our attention to be diverted too far for too long.

Otherwise our fatigue or information overload will leave people who are still in desperate need with nobody to take up their cause.

The people who feel their lives were shattered on Boxing Day will need more than immediate money and physical aid – though that need is very real. Some of their most pressing needs will not, in fact, become evident for some time yet.

The deeper, more emotional needs will often only surface once the immediate physical shock has worn off. Sometimes, it's only when people return to some kind of routine that they discover just how much of their normal lives they have lost.

We need to stay focussed on the aftermath of such tragedy, at least enough to offer ongoing solace and help wherever we can. Remembering too, of course, that people closer to home have also suffered great loss; so many European families have been affected.

If we lose interest in the tragedy too quickly, agencies and governments who are responsible for the distribution of resources will also lack important checks and balances on accounting for the aid.

We need to know that the money donated is being sent to people and situations where it can do the most good.

This requires that we are informed of progress. That's where our modern media are so helpful and so vital.

There is a general dumbing-down of TV in so many areas today. Public service broadcasting has largely gone out the window in preference to ratings-grabbing, high-profit offerings.

A situation like the one unfolding in Asia – not to mention the terrible crises affecting various parts of Africa – demonstrate the unique and dynamic role mass media can play in promoting a healthier world. In situations like this, we the public cannot allow media coverage to be dictated simply by its short-term ratings potential.

We must keep our media outlets accountable over time, by expressing our ongoing interest in the story and the people of which it speaks.

We can do this in many ways, most directly through letters and via the ubiquitous email, text messaging and online survey opportunities offered by news and current affairs programs.

We also keep media interested by changing our own viewing habits to reflect where our priorities should lie.

When it comes to human tragedy, we should not be watching simply out of some misguided desire to find new paths to entertainment. Natural disasters are not a new form of reality TV.

There is a moral dimension in this situation. We need to stay with the process, as connected as we can be, until the major problems are resolved and people are at least able to pick up the pieces and move on.

No, we probably won't give the same degree of attention to the situation a year after the tragedy, but we must ensure that we don't move on after a few weeks or months, before things have started to improve.

© Mal Fletcher 2005

Mal Fletcher (@MalFletcher) is the founder and chairman of 2030Plus. He is a respected keynote speaker, social commentator and social futurist, author and broadcaster based in London.

About us