5-11 June 2015 #761

Newfound empathy

Nepali journalists reported on the disaster with compassion, others not so much
Tsering Dolker Gurung
One of the most moving pieces of reportage to come out of the 25 April earthquake has been from Al Jazeera’s Nepal correspondent Subina Shrestha who broke down on camera mid-report while recounting the devastation of her hometown, Patan Darbar Square, a day after the quake.

“Every morning I hope it was a nightmare, but it’s not,” says Shrestha, her back turned to the camera. “Nepal has no choice but to rebuild, and hopefully I can do it better next time.”

Many of us who grew up in the city, have homes and families here, and were out on field the very next day of the quake have felt the exact same emotions that made Shrestha, an experienced journalist tear up and lose composure on the job. Witnessing destruction is never easy, not even for a journalist, but it becomes terribly hard not to get affected when it involves reporting on a place you have spent your entire life in.

Collapsed temples in Patan, Bhaktapur, and Basantapur didn’t just add up to statistics for us. These were places where we often met friends for tea discussing the future, career goals, relationship troubles. The 8,700 people who lost their lives were not all strangers.

Perhaps this is why reports produced by Nepali journalists have been more sensitive and empathetic in their approach than usual. Unlike foreign reporters who had little idea about the country’s geography, culture and customs, and who couldn’t place Nepal on a map before the quake, we understood the nuances and had more insight.

Photo: Bikram Rai

We knew better than to ask a wailing wife who had just found out about her husband’s death “How do you feel?”. Or a grieving person: “Why are you in all-whites and shaving your head?” We had our reservations about taking pictures of mass funerals at Pashupatinath that had become mandatory for many international photojournalists. Even James Natchway couldn’t resist the temptation to make a stop there on his two-day visit.

The previous distinction between the subject of our stories was suddenly blurred. We were all earthquake-affected. Some of us lost our homes, some their workplaces, and some their lives.

Journalism schools teach you detachment, that empathy hinders objectivity. Even if we transmit compassion through our journalism, we can be as detached from the subject. Our aim is to seek to understand the other, not support or oppose. It also becomes equally important to give empathy that we naturally tend to have for survivors to all others. Empahty, in fact, enhances the credibility of our reportage.

For many of us, this was also the biggest story of our lives. We all knew that a big earthquake was going to strike any day, but like the government, were ill prepared on how to report when it happened. Few media houses conducted in-house training on disaster reporting, or provided the necessary resources to reporters during the state of emergency.

Many colleagues went to far-flung areas on their personal initiative with no support from editors. They became the ones to produce first-hand account of what was really going on.

Journalist Amantha Perrera who has reported on the war in Sri Lanka in an interview with DART Centre for Journalism and Trauma said: “Self care is very important. We don’t realise it but covering death and mayhem day in day out can have a really deep impact on our work and on ourselves.”

One of the positive impacts to come out of this disaster has been a newly-found empathy for the people that are our stories, but it has also brought to light the lack of training and resources for journalists covering disasters in Nepal.


Read also:

Following the script, Kunda Dixit

Believe it, or not, Tsering Dolker Gurung

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