Finding the science in the midst of disaster

Science journalists who found themselves in the thick of disaster

Science journalists who found themselves in the thick of disaster

Has a science story ever moved you to tears?

A session in which three science journalists talked about how they reported in such a dramatic situation was certainly moving.

Nalaka Gunawardene, director of TVE Asia Pacific in Sri Lanka (and a SciDev.Net trustee) told the audience about his experience covering the tsunami of 2004. The phenomenon caused 40,000 deaths and 550,000 people lost their home.

“We had to explain the basic science but we couldn’t answer the big question: why now and to us?”, Gunawardene said. The challenge was to cover the humanitarian side of the story but also the substories with science elements, like how to prevent epidemics and DNA identification. After some days, journalists started asking why they were  not warned in advance.

Hujun Li, science and health writer of the Caijing Magazine, talked about the Sichuan earthquake in 2008, when over 86,000 people died. There was an intense first week of reporting and in the second week more questions started to be asked.

For example, was the widespread collapse of schools, which killed so many children, a natural consequence or a human-caused disaster? The Chinese reporter also wondered about the ethics of disaster reporting: “Did we hurt the victims by asking them questions again and again?”

Richard Stone, correspondent for Science Magazine in Beijing, gave an amazing chronicle of his coverage of  the Wenchuan earthquake in China, which began with his disbelief that he would be able to find a science story amongst the rubble.

“The first days I was paralysed. There was a science angle out there?” he said.

But after contacting scientists and visiting the disaster area with them, he finally found a very interesting angle: there was a controversial possibility that a dam could have caused the earthquake.

All this highlights, as Tim Radford, former science editor of The Guardian newspaper in the UK and session chair said, the fact that science reporters have an important role in the reporting of disasters — they can keep the story alive. It is really important to keep going back to the disaster places a month, six months and even years after.

Laura García, freelance contributor to SciDev.Net

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