Humanitarian Health Action

Proceedings from the WHO Conference on the Health Aspects of the Tsunami Disaster in Asia

Phuket, Thailand, 4-6 May 2005

Working within local, national and international media

50. Media and communication professionals play a critical role in providing information about affected populations whose survival is at stake, not only to members of the public but to those governments and donor organizations who make funding decisions. Journalists are often the only source of information and analysis at the initial, and critical, stages of the crisis. Local and community media, particularly those who broadcast via the radio, also provide essential public health information to communities about what they can do to improve their chance of survival.

51. To broadcast or write a story, journalists need facts and figures, reliable analysis, human interest stories, good pictures and interviews with technical experts. To get vital information broadcast, humanitarian organizations need to ensure that journalists have the information they need - this means that technical staff in humanitarian organizations need to be media-friendly and trained in communication skills.

52. Immediately after the tsunami, many journalists observed that population-based information about health risks was in short supply. As a result, critical issues such as psychosocial trauma and mental illness, diarrhoea and malaria risks and women's ill health, received media coverage that was out of proportion to their public health importance. On some of these issues, decision-makers - who tend to rely on the international media for up-to-date information - were relatively uninformed. There is a clear need, in disaster response, for increased investment in building effective relations between humanitarian agencies and the media - including analyses of what did or did not work in the way of health interventions.

53. Effective relations with the media take time to establish. They can be built up during "down time" when humanitarian personnel are not preoccupied with responding to a major crisis. Journalists want to receive informed briefings and analyses of what did or did not work from a technical perspective. These do not always need to be "on the record".

54. Participants heard that media and communications work should be prioritized as part of all humanitarian operational plans - both for the relief and recovery phases. Journalists and broadcasters should be treated as part of the response team: they are key partners in helping to shape and frame the policy agenda for disaster preparedness and response. They can play a major role in disseminating key public health messages. WHO was encouraged to establish more effective relations with key media groups to enable them to appreciate health issues during disasters and to help demystify myths that hinder national and international response efforts. WHO was also encouraged to hire local journalists, who are usually better at collecting and organizing information than health and humanitarian professionals.