Amanda Ripley

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If a Disaster Happens and No One Reports It, Did It Really Happen?

19th May 2008 posted in General

The New York Times had a telling story about how China tried to suppress media coverage of the massive earthquake that struck Sichuan Province the other day. How a government deals with reporters in the immediate aftermath of a disaster says a lot about how healthy that government was to begin with—and how grueling the recovery may be.

Two and a half hours after the quake, China’s Central Propaganda Department issued a mandate to newspapers: “No media is allowed to send reporters to the disaster zone.”

Wow. That’s a pretty speedy response. You might have thought they would have more urgent matters to attend to… like, say, the more than

34,000

51,000 dead people. But this kind of reaction is as classic as it is shameful. In every disaster, officials who are already distrustful of the public and lack confidence in their own competence will tend to close down sites to reporters.

But this is not a PR issue; it is a question of life-or-death for the millions of people who have been affected by the disaster and desperately need information and help. Its most extreme form is being witnessed (or not witnessed, as it turns out) in Myanmar, where the government has literally locked its people up to die.

Here’s a case study, on a much smaller scale: after Hurricane Katrina, FEMA would not return phone calls from me and my colleagues at TIME. We could not get basic information in the most chaotic days after landfall—a time when the media can play a role in helping people survive.

Around the same time, the U.S. Coast Guard called TIME and asked if we would like to have a reporter spend the day with Adm. Thad Allen, who was overseeing the recovery. This kind of outreach and openness are so unusual in this administration that my first reaction was to say no. I figured it would be an incredibly orchestrated photo op that would tell me nothing. But then I changed my mind when I heard I could view the destruction from a helicopter with Adm. Allen. At least I would get a sense of the magnitude of the disaster, I figured.

I was wrong. The trip was enormously helpful in making me understand not only the degree of devastation but the complexity of the recovery. It also gave me insight into the courage and agility of the Coast Guard, which saved tens of thousands of lives after the storm without waiting for permission. I ended up writing one of the most glowing stories of my career.

I know this is all a bit self-serving and preachy, but I feel strongly that it is also true. An open society is a healthier society. And the healthier your society (or your family or your office or your city) before the disaster, the faster you will recover afterwards.