The Australian Broadcasting Corporation the only media organisation in the world undertaking “emergency broadcasting,” giving emergency agencies a reliable radio and online platform to issue all warnings for all hazards, to the entire community. Radio is important as its cheap, mobile, and robust.

“Emergency broadcasting” allows a graduated warning process, which is another unique aspect of the content. It has been warmly received by the community and is considered central to the warning process in Australia.

But others are interested in the role journalism can play in assisting communities in emergencies. Here’s a useful web site that collates many blogs in the emergency journalism field.

Meantime, Dr Rob Gordon and I spent some time discussing the role of news gathering in disasters.

Often covering a disaster in a shallow, incomplete way, does more damage than good. Which got us thinking – how could journalists ensure they create benefits when covering disasters, and avoid leaving more damage behind.

Here’s the checklist:


Recovery broadcasting is about helping the community and individuals recover by sharing their stories, and through that, enabling them to realise the strengths of their community that are worth remembering when they are going through dark times. It is about understanding the true fabric of a community, how it can be stretched, can break, or can remain intact and strong and be something those affected by the disasters to rely on.

This approach to gathering content will not generate what we would normally refer to as  “news” which have clear issues which can be chased up, fixed up, blamed on someone, and corrected. It’s about individual human perspective, which is personal, emotional, uncertain and changes over the path of the disaster, as it moves from preparation through rescue, to recovery and normalisation.

In other words we can give people perspective.  Disaster Psychologist Dr Rob Gordon says people feel better if they know someone’s listening.  As Frank Duffy from Roleystone told ABC Local Radio Perth morning presenter Geoff Hutchison on the Monday morning after the fires there : ”I think talking to someone makes it easier.”

The people in disasters will all be, at some level, traumatised. They cant think strategically and plan; they will react to the first thing which occurs to them. Slowly they will get their day to day lives in order,  followed by making decisions about  other things. As they unwind from the stress of the event they need understanding.

Let the talent have time to tell their stories. They need our patience.

The aim is that people will discover how their experience compares of that to others  to put their minds at rest.  They will come to understand what actually happened around them while they were hunkered down or evacuating. This will help them move on in their mental and physical recovery process.

As Dr John Irvine told ABC Queensland after cyclone Yasi: ”We’ve got to maintain their tribal support.”

Grief and hopelessness

We can play a vital role in motivating the community to work together during these times, and the recovery will be quicker and stronger. Many will not be coping very well. They will be tearful and emotional, and sometimes during your conversation they might stop talking and appear embarrassed. That’s normal. Stay with them,  be sympathetic: “Clearly it’s been hard for you” or “it’s understandable that you will be emotional at times like this.” Do not say “I understand,” because unless you have been through what they have been through, you don’t.  It is an element of the ABC Editorial Policies that we don’t intrude into grief. If the interview is so emotional that it deteriorates, stop what you are doing. If it’s a pre-record, ask them if they are okay with you broadcasting the interview. Give them the right to their privacy and feelings. If you feel there is any doubt about their emotional ability to make that decision, drop the interview.

Often we hear a person say:  “I’ve lost everything”  and it seems to broadcasters that sometimes it is that phrase alone which is important as it reveals the scale of the event.

But we can help people reduce the personal scale of their disaster to something that’s manageable by encouraging people to understand a more realistic assessment of their loss:  they haven’t lost the environment; they haven’t lost their friends and relatives; they haven’t lost their memories and they haven’t lost the community spirit which kept them living in their communities in the first place.

If someone says “All is lost,” you cant easily disagree with them, because that’s a bit aggressive, but you can ask them to tell you “what was beautiful about this community before the cyclone” and very quickly they will change the direction of their thoughts, and you’ll find a more hopeful insight is delivered.

Now is a good time for groups like Lions, Rotary, school councils and churches, to come together and start supporting their communities. Encourage that.

To change their thoughts a little, you might ask: ”What would you like to have done….” or ask them what they need right now? (But do not encourage donated goods at any time.)


It is well known from research that people in disasters feel inclined to set unrealistic recovery deadlines. They make quick, ill considered decisions, that lead to long term pressure and stress.

In fact suicides, family and business breakdown, all rise about nine months after any disaster, as people who think they SHOULD have rebuilt in a year,  realise the task isn’t completed, and they begin to feel hopeless, disorganised, and that they’ve let down their family, friends and communities.

Help relieve this process by avoiding any talk of deadlines. Don’t ask people what they will be like in a year – ask them “what will your life be like when you are recovered (No deadline mentioned).”


Occurs when normal communication networks between people break down because people don’t feel they share the same experience. It occurs between the insured and the uninsured; the damaged and undamaged; those who left and those who stayed. If cleavage takes hold in a community, be it a family, a street, a school or a sports club, it is very hard to recover. Help the community understand this problem.  Encourage people to maintain their personal networks and links, and explain how important it is to keep talking to each other and check up on the members of their community group, family or network.


In order to build a connection with individuals, we need to be physically with them, preferably alongside as they experience the event, and then with them as they recover. For ABC Local Radio this means emergency broadcasting and rolling coverage begins earlier and stays on air a little longer. It means we will send reporters or broadcasters to the scene as soon as it’s safe; and we will send “recovery teams” of experienced broadcasters  into the areas afterwards, when all other media have left,  to maintain the connection.

Repeatedly we hear that some communities feel isolated, ignored and lost. ABC Local Radio can find those suburbs and towns and communities, and bring hope to those who need to hear the outside world cares about their plight.

We will encourage outside broadcasts, recovery broadcasting and opportunities to be with the communities in this way.

Equally thought there is a chance that communities which are subject to the harsh glare of the media spotlight might feel betrayed if the media arrives, peers into people’s emotional trauma, and never comes back.  ABC Local Radio should never promise to deliver something it cant, but it should make every effort to find ways of staying with recovering communities.  Following individual family reconstruction is one way; regular interviews with a local person about the pathway of recovery is another; keeping in touch with community leaders, and checking on special dates are other ways to keep in touch (For example: find out how many players the sports clubs have at the beginning of their next season – and help the community understand how important it is to stay with local networks).


Some anger is natural after a disaster, but it can take energy away from the recovery. It also seriously impacts on the morale of the recovery teams, many of whom are volunteers . Try not to encourage division and anger. There is a role to cover issues, and to hear the issues, but not to the extent that it detracts from the optimism and positive community insight. There are many, many outlets that can examine this element:  in the Queensland sugar town of Tully which had been hit by Cyclone Yasi one man got angry with Tony Abbot, and it was front page news in Brisbane where the media outlet said:  ”Anger is rising in North Qld.” Programs and ABC News and every media desk in the world will focus on the anger, in recovery mode we should ensure we don’t focus on this while ignoring other elements of the recovery process. As 774 ABC Melbourne Evening presenter tells his audience:   “That way madness lies.”


Communities are made strong by their existing institutions. Their sports clubs;  councils; schools; neighbourhood houses; Rotary/Lions/Probus, police, street meetings; SES; farmers groups; CWA; business and tourism lobby groups etc.

The recovery task forces will be trying to ensure these are strengthened and the recovery is being focussed on existing institutions, rather than something new. New leaders emerge and sometimes detract from the good work of previous community leaders, displacing them almost, further encouraging “cleavage” and division. Be careful of new community leaders. By all means encourage them, but try to find others who are also the existing community leaders. Talk to the presidents of the netball, cricket and rugby clubs and ask them what their community is doing. “Maintain tribal support.”

Non-traditional media users

Try to find people to talk to in the communities which do not use the media much, as they will feel valued if the wider community understands their predicament: Indigenous, children, very old, the sick; those with handicaps, non English speaking; refugees; unemployed. They, like any member of the community, should not be ignored or overlooked.

Look at economic community too: mines, tourism, education; transport; real estate; mechanics, engineering firms –  they are the small business life blood of their towns.

Recognition and commemoration

You will find there are some unsung heroes in the community and the institutions they work with are vital, so if we promote their work, it builds trust in those communities. This relates especially to police, electrical, telecomms  and Local Government workers. Try to interview them about their role (not the mayors and commissioners, we hear plenty from them, but get the personal stories from the coal-face workers.)

Commemoration of the event is vital, as it creates a sense of perspective, and ensures that the community does not feel forgotten when the momentum has gone out of the news flow.

The recovery from floods and cyclones takes years, not months. Many people will not return to their homes for 18 months or more.

Commemorate  with sympathy.

Let me know if you have any insights into this…I will enjoy your feedback.


About Rob Gordon

I am grateful to Rob Gordon for giving up time to explain he processes and work with me to try to work out how to assist the recovery process, and avoid some of the pitfalls.

Rob has done numerous interviews with ABC after disasters, and is honing his clinical skills as a commentator! Her presented at a Local Radio Awards seminar in Sydney. He will welcome your call.

Rob Gordon, Ph.D.,  is a clinical psychologist who has worked in disasters since the 1983 Ash Wednesday bushfires.  He has been a consultant to the Victorian Emergency Management Plan for twenty years and has been involved in most major Victorian emergencies since then.  He has consulted to rural communities, staff and agencies involved in supporting them in fire, flood, cyclone and drought in most Australian states and New Zealand.  He conducts a private psychotherapy practice in Box Hill, Victoria where he treats adults and children affected by trauma and disaster as part of a general practice.  He is a regular lecturer to emergency recovery training courses conducted by the Australian Emergency Management Institute and provides training and consultation to agencies in Australia and New Zealand.  He has published a number of articles in the field of trauma and disaster.

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