Advice from Lily Boisson

A couple of weeks ago, my friend Maiko received bad news. An earthquake struck her home country of Japan.

Maiko is a J-school grad who lives in Fredericton, New Brunswick. She couldn’t reach her family and she was worried. As soon as I found out I sent her a text saying, “I know how you feel.”

I know all about the initial panic—the mad dash to reach family members, the anxiety as images of destruction flash across the screen and the harrowing thought that loved ones might be hurt.

I lived through all those same emotions last year when my home country was stuck by a natural disaster. I was in Fredericton, where I live and study, when I heard the news that Port-au-Prince had been rattled by a strong earthquake.

As a Haitian-born Canadian and a journalist, I gained a different perspective on disaster stories and the people affected. Here are a few things to keep in mind:

1)  Speaking to the media isn’t a priority for everyone

When I first heard about the earthquake, my immediate thoughts were with my family members. My father, aunts, uncles and cousins all live in Haiti. It was two hours before I could reach my family. Those two hours were the darkest hours of my life.

It wasn’t until after I heard from my dad that I even considered doing interviews with local media and writing about the earthquake.

When trying to reach a source for a comment or an interview keep in mind that talking to the media may not be their first priority. That being said, many people will be eager to talk to the media and bring attention to their situation.

2)  Don’t let the disaster define the people affected

There are many dimensions to every culture; don’t let your subject be defined by the disaster. We are all too familiar with images of devastation and strife on the news. Unfortunately, these images can come to over-represent an affected area.

When I spoke about Haiti after the earthquake I soon became aware that many people were associating my home country with poverty, devastation and death. I tried to balance this by telling them about all the wonderful things Haiti has to offer.

On the ground in Haiti many reporters covered religious services after the quake. In Haiti these ceremonies are accompanied by singing, dancing and impassioned sermons. This was a good way to showcase Haitian culture and tell the story of a grieving population.

3) Be compassionate, be human

While people shouldn’t be defined by their suffering, the gravity of their situation should not be downplayed either. Journalists on the scene in Haiti were overwhelmed with the suffering they saw around them, but they managed to produce some excellent work.

CBC journalist Paul Hunter’s story about a makeshift hospital is a good example of this. Hunter, doesn’t mince words about the dire conditions at the hospital. During his stand up he draws attention to the cries of a young girl receiving treatment.

4) Stick with it – cover the recovery

Any good journalist should always be thinking of follow-up stories. Natural disasters like earthquakes and tsunamis are just the beginning. In Haiti, a Cholera epidemic followed. In Japan it’s an ongoing nuclear disaster.

The effects of the earthquake are still palpable in Haiti’s capital. In fact, tent cities once thought of as a temporary solution for the newly homeless, are now being considered permanent settlements.

Often the most captivating stories happen after the initial disaster. Stick around, there will be more stories to tell.

About Lily

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