< Test of the Emergency Broadcasting System

Transcript

Friday, November 18, 2005

BOB GARFIELD:: The October 8th earthquake that struck Pakistan was a catastrophe of epic proportions. Hansjoerg Strohmeyer is Chief of Staff to the Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs at the U.N. His office is responsible for administering assistance to the region, as it did for areas affected by the tsunami. He describes this earthquake and its aftermath as measurably worse than anything he's seen before. Some 75,000 people were killed in the quake, 70,000 seriously injured, 3,000,000 rendered homeless, and with winter a few weeks away, 1,000,000 people are at immediate risk of hypothermia.

HANSJOERG STROHMEYER: Most infrastructure, houses, schools, water pipes, sewer systems have been destroyed in the area. Definitely there is a connectivity between the level of coverage and the level of response in terms of funding and assistance. Highly publicized crises with immediately available pictures, not only of the victims but also of the assistance that has been provided, usually helps. The tsunami is one of the main examples, but we have many others. The next couple of days or weeks will be decisive in the battle over many, many people's lives. That makes it much more dramatic than the impact of the tsunami.

BOB GARFIELD:: A lack of sustained interest from governments and the press has already begun to take its toll. Instead of actual coverage, many media outlets have reported how apathetic the public seems in the wake of so many recent natural disasters. The Washington Post is one of the papers that has cut back on earthquake coverage. We asked the paper's foreign editor, Keith Richburg, why its reporting has waned.

KEITH RICHBURG: We were on the story initially, I think, probably faster than anybody, a lot of other people were, because we happened to have a reporter in Pakistan when it occurred. He stayed there, and I think we put that story on the front page quite a bit. Then what happened was the story started to sound a little bit the same. We covered it from various angles, from the situation in Kashmir to the families left in the mountains. But you do raise an interesting question - how long one can sustain day-in-and-day-out coverage of one of these ongoing humanitarian crises.

BOB GARFIELD:: In other words, if the story still is, "Yes, it continues to be an ongoing disaster for all of the same reasons," there's simply not that much to add.

KEITH RICHBURG: Yeah. I mean, that's one way to put it. The main problem now are the people who remained in these mountain villages, these very isolated villages cut off by rock slides. The reporting by John Lancaster, supplemented by Nurit Aizenman, I mean, they trekked by foot into those mountain villages. They talked to people. You know, people talk about the phrase "compassion fatigue." I mean, there might be a bit of fatigue if people see the same story day in and day out. So what we did was we decided we'd come back and take a look at the story again after a short break and see how the situation is maybe in a week or two weeks from now compared to when we left it last.

BOB GARFIELD:: Well, without in any way suggesting that the Los Angeles Times is on the side of God and you're on the side of evil, in the same period of time they've done 40-some stories about the earthquake and its continuing impact. I'm trying to understand what different calculus the L.A. Times applied to the story than you have.

KEITH RICHBURG: Well, I can't answer the question. I'd have to talk to the L.A. Times or go back and have a look. Maybe they have a bureau based in Pakistan. We go in and out. And secondly, I think you have to look at these things in a more global perspective instead of going in and counting stories, because I think we were, if not the first, at least one of the first news organizations on the ground in these villages in Pakistan. So a lot of times other news organizations play catch up. They come in late but then they write a lot of stories after we've already been there and written the main stories. And finally, I would say - and again, I'm not criticizing any other news organization because I haven't read them - but I'd say, "Look at what others were doing at the same time." We had a front-page story the other day about the hunger situation in Malawi. Now, we had front-page stories about the hunger and the situation caused by the mudslides in Guatemala. So when it comes to covering humanitarian disasters around the world, we look around the world. We try to keep these things on the front page as much as possible, and we make a point of going back to places after we've been there. One thing I could say about John Lancaster, our reporter who's been covering the earthquake in Pakistan, is that he was also in South Asia and East Asia for the tsunami, which was a year ago, and he's made a point of going back to the same places he's seen month after month after month to keep us updated.

BOB GARFIELD:: Let's talk about the tsunami now, because for whatever reason, the "compassion fatigue," [CHUCKLES] to use your term, didn't quite set in so quickly. There was a lot more ongoing coverage for months after the tsunami. What do you think the difference is in these two stories?

KEITH RICHBURG: I think the tsunami case was far more dramatic in the sense that a tsunami is not something we have seen. In fact, we hadn't seen a tsunami like that, I don't think, in the generation. The sea coming in and sweeping away entire villages was something just, just stunning, really, whereas earthquakes, and particularly earthquakes in that part of the world, are regular occurrences. Secondly, I think the difference with the tsunami is the vast number of countries it affected, countries all the way from Indonesia in the east going across to East Africa and to Thailand and into Burma going north. So you add all those factors together, it made it something incredibly unusual, and I think it's something that a lot of news organizations devoted lots of resources to.

BOB GARFIELD:: Okay, Keith. Well, thank you very much.

KEITH RICHBURG: All right. Thank you.

BOB GARFIELD:: Keith Richburg is foreign editor of the Washington Post. If coverage has been spotty in the press, it's all but disappeared from the network news. Vaughn Ververs is the editor of Public Eye, a new online forum created by CBS News, where viewers can weigh in with complaints and have questions answered by the news department. That forum examined the network's lack of earthquake reporting in an October posting, titled "The Quake that Disappeared." And Ververs documented the minutes of coverage that each of the networks' nightly newscasts dedicated to the Pakistan quake, numbers that were surprisingly similar. In the week of October 8th, when the quake struck, CBS led with 21 minutes overall, but in the four weeks since, the total has been just six minutes.

VAUGHN VERVERS: It just dropped off the table. You don't see it just at CBS. You see it throughout the entire media, and I think that's worrisome. I think that this is a story that deserves to have more focus on it because of the tremendous impact it has on so many people.

BOB GARFIELD:: Periodically in newspapers, you see one-, two-, three-paragraph stories about head-on train collisions in some third world country in which the death toll is truly horrifying, and yet the coverage that it generates is negligible here. The farther away the events occur and the darker the people to whom they occur, the less the interest from certainly American news organizations. Do you think that's the heart of the problem in the Kashmir earthquake story?

VAUGHN VERVERS: I think that's part of the problem. I'm not sure it's the entire problem or even the biggest part of the problem. I do think that there is a theory among the media that consumers of news in this country don't necessarily care about these stories to a large extent, at least not a mass audience. I think that if the effort's made, like Bob Simon made on "60 Minutes" last week, to present it in a compelling way, I think people will care about it. There was an interesting tidbit in an article about Sean McManus, who's the new president of CBS News. Before he began his tenure a couple of weeks ago, he sat down in an editorial meeting and the only comment he made was that he thinks that the Pakistan story is not getting enough coverage. Whether the resources for every news organization is there to do that or not is another question.

BOB GARFIELD:: And yet in the end we're still talking [LAUGHS] about three million homeless people facing a winter in extreme conditions, the kind of humanitarian catastrophe that can have echoes literally for generations. Does that not trump all of the other issues of resources and competing stories?

VAUGHN VERVERS: I think you have to wait and let the verdict come in. I think that you'll see more coverage of Pakistan as the winter approaches. It may be too late at that point. I would like to see these stories get at least a small mention on every nightly newscast, a quick update on the situation in Pakistan. I'm hopeful that everybody will come back and shine a spotlight on the conditions of the people over there.

BOB GARFIELD:: All right, Vaughn. Well, listen, thank you very much.

VAUGHN VERVERS: You bet, Bob.

BOB GARFIELD:: Vaughn Ververs is the editor of CBS News Public Eye. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]

copyright 2005 WNYC Radio