Resilient journalism: mapping the dynamics of disaster reporting

Authors: Sreedharan, C. and Thorsen, E.

Conference: Rethink Impact: 9th European Communication Conference, Risks, Threats, and Reporting Dangerously

Dates: 19-22 October 2022


This paper proposes a model for understanding journalism resilience in times of disasters. It draws on empirical evidence from seven years of research in Nepal and Sierra Leone, including analyses of how newsrooms and journalists responded to disaster events — ranging from natural disasters, to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. We conceptualise the dynamics of journalism resilience, illustrating the different human, structural, and environmental factors that are key to understanding emergency preparedness, and disaster journalism that stretches beyond episodic news coverage.

Journalism becomes ever more vital during crises situations (Haddow & Haddow 2014), playing a central role in providing trustworthy information to the public, and holding governmental and health agencies accountable for their emergency responses. Performing this vital function becomes more difficult when journalists are hindered or personally impacted by the very crisis they are reporting on (Sreedharan & Thorsen 2020). Individual health concerns, restrictions on movement, and the hostile economic climate and ever-present threat of redundancies make the work of news operations more challenging.

Nepal and Sierra Leone are composite of ‘disaster communities’ (Mathews & Thorsen 2020), witnessing extensive natural or humanitarian disasters every year, ranging from flooding, landslides, avalanches, droughts, fires, and health crises. Frequent changes of government and civil wars have also significantly impacted Nepal and Sierra Leone, with unstable political conditions the norm. The safety and professional development of journalists, therefore, is of paramount importance, as is their ability to efficiently function in the midst of unpredictable events (Sreedharan & Thorsen 2019; Sreedharan et al 2020; Sreedharan, et al 2021).

Our model draws mainly on a series of investigations that aimed to address the situation outlined above. We conducted two national surveys that explored disaster preparedness in the context of Covid-19, during 2020 in Nepal including 1,134 journalists (Sreedharan et al 2020) and during 2021 in Sierra Leone including 639 journalists (Sreedharan et al 2021). In both instances the national surveys covered every province of the country and news personnel working in print, online, broadcast, and radio. We also conducted elite stakeholder interviews with journalists and editors.

Despite these countries’ vulnerability to disasters, our study found a significant number of journalists have low or extremely low levels of confidence in their ability to carry out their professional duties during disasters. Some 70% of Nepali and 52% of Sierra Leone journalists reported they had never undertaken disaster-related training (or were unsure if they had).

Against the backdrop of these findings, we explore disaster resilience from a quantitative and qualitative perspective, focussing on the need for news organisations to develop editorial preparedness in response to disasters and emergencies. Our model posits four aspects of journalism resilience: physical, health, editorial, and social. These are further broken into a total of 14 facets, which illustrate the ways in which journalism is impacted by and responds to crisis and disasters. This new theoretical approach provides a framework for understanding disasters that have impacted Nepal and Sierra Leone, and an analytical lens to research journalism resilience in other contexts.

Source: Manual