Written by Aileen Macalintal.
When Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) barrelled over Central Philippines on 8 November, 2013, a storm surge almost obliterated towns in the poor provinces of Samar and Leyte. On the night of the typhoon’s landfall, I was stranded in Puerto Princesa, which stood in the way of the typhoon, so I checked in at a hostel and followed news coverage on TV while angry winds battered the country. Days after the disaster, the horrifying results unfolded before the world’s eyes. More than 1 million houses were gone, over 4 million people were displaced, and 6,300 dead. Relief efforts descended upon the Philippines one after another, with the United Kingdom, United States, Australia, Japan and Canada topping the list of countries that gave international aid for relief and rehabilitation efforts in the Yolanda-ravaged Philippines.
If we are to help the people of the Philippines build back better after Yolanda, we need to know what is happening on the ground. This means continued engagement with affected communities, and continued interest amongst the global news media to propagate such stories.
Four years after the tragedy, one can hardly see Yolanda-related news despite it being a record catastrophe in the Philippines, if not the region. Even the Philippine capital of Metro Manila is now too busy with its own everyday problems of heavy traffic, overpopulation and increasingly unbearable public transportation, to care about whether the almost 6 million workers who lost their sources of income due to Yolanda have recovered their livelihood or whether the more than 500 damaged health facilities in typhoon affected areas received enough funds to help save people’s lives.
Could the lack of continuous coverage indicate what is called “compassion fatigue”? In media studies, compassion fatigue pertains to a modern day syndrome where the public’s growing indifference to news about crises such as wars and hunger, resulting from the frequency of appearance on air or online, leads media organisations to either sensationalise the tiresome news or drop it altogether. In other words, people get tired of caring after being inundated with formulaic images and reports of human suffering.
The challenge to journalists is then: How can we better report on disaster stories and climate change? What must be kept in the news? One answer could be slow journalism.
“Slow journalism” is slowing down reporting to focus on stories and issues of ordinary people who are rarely covered in mainstream news. A fitting model of slow journalism is Paul Salopek’s National Geographic project, “Out of Eden,” where the Pulitzer winning journalist took immersive storytelling to the next level. Salopek embarked on a seven-year journey following the footsteps of humanity’s ancestors from Africa to Asia to Americas on foot to tell journalistic stories of culture, politics and society from people he meets on the road. For the readers to experience the world he is sharing, he uses videos, audio, photographs, maps, and text.
Slow journalism stands in contrast to fast-moving, highly perishable news written in a tired formula. For typhoon stories, the typical mainstream formula contains statistics including body counts, cost of damages and the arrival of aid. Slow journalism, on the other hand, could feature the sixth graders in Tacloban who had to stop schooling because they lost their school buildings to Yolanda, or the Moguing Organic Farmers Association who organised coconut farmers to plant vegetables to secure community food and raise additional income, or the women who took on roles in disaster preparedness efforts or in vulnerability mitigation.
One could think of several stories that need to be told so that the Philippines and the rest of the world may not forget about major natural disasters and grow tired of caring. As the case of Yolanda attests, even the most harrowing of news stories can be quickly subsumed in the face of other pressing national or international narratives. If we are to help the people of the Philippines build back better after Yolanda, we need to know what is happening on the ground. This means continued engagement with affected communities, and continued interest amongst the global news media to propagate such stories.
Aileen Macalintal, financial reporter for a North American newswire, was a visiting scholar at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism in Spring 2017 under the Erasmus Mundus MA in Journalism, Media and Globalisation. She tweets @aiscracker. This article forms part of the IAPS Dialogue edition entitled ‘Yolanda: Building Back Better,’ run in conjunction with the ESRC/DFID ‘Joint Fund for Poverty Alleviation Research’ project entitled ‘Poverty Alleviation in the Wake of Typhoon Yolanda’. Image credit: CC by DFID/ FLICKR.