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Friday, November 30, 2007

SHAKE, RATTLE… AND ROLLING NEWS IN THE CARIBBEAN

For once, the Caribbean was integrated. Three o'clock, November 29th, 2007.

Following radio news coverage on Thursday's earthquake produced some fissures and wobbling of its own.

Most newsrooms, luckily, had access to the Internet. But where did we go? Not to the University of the West Indies Seismic Research Unit but to the US Geological Survey. No follow up. Not a call to anyone at UWI Seismic Unit, certainly not by any radio or television reporter in Barbados, where I was, or in a few other places I was monitoring.

The coverage seemed to suffer in other countries where the journalists' lack of media experience was a greater issue than whether they'd been through an earthquake. I was appalled that in Antigua, for example, which has had far more experiences of earthquakes, it was treated as a little five-minute report inside a regular show of music and chatter (N.B. Having been live and continuous on radio through a quake and a flood there in 2001, I know how much the community appreciated - and expected - our presence).

Then there's what I call The CXC Essay Approach. Young journalists rip off the Internet for as much text as they can find, throw in one or two clips from officialdom and wait for the next news bulletin. One journalist in a newsroom I called told me some other journalist was "on it". Everybody needs to be "on it", covering different angles and checking different sources, then coming and telling what they know and have gathered to the audience.

And where was Martinique, the island off whose coast this quake started? No where. After all, they're French, right? What need of us to reach RFO's Marie-Claude Celeste or Caroline Popovic who could have led us to the right people, or speak themselves?

All in all, a less-than-earth-shattering exercise in live continuous news coverage, especially by radio, in too many cases. To those of you who went the extra mile, and responded to the needs of the communities you serve by staying on the air throughout fielding calls, making calls and imparting emergency information, I say well done. Let's do better next time. Much better.

1. NOTE THE TIME WHEN S___T HAPPENS. It was on the stroke of three where I was, yet a radio station in Barbados was talking about minutes BEFORE three. Check the time, as you reach to make that cell phone call to a loved one. Maybe it's an old hack's reflex. Make it yours.

2. SEND REPORTERS OUT! Too many stations think the best place is right at the office in such an environment, just so they can call the authorities - emergency managers, police, hospital, fire etc. GO WHERE THEY ARE. GO WHERE PEOPLE ARE. Talk to the people on the street about their experiences. Or at least go and describe them BEING on the street, scampering out of buildings. You won't have any traffic problems going into town. Journalists, like firemen, are people who run to trouble as people run from it.

3. MAKE HISTORICAL REFERENCES. A good use of the UWISEISMIC (www.uwiseismic.com) and USGS (http://earthquake.usgs.gov) is noting major events in history, whether they happened in Antigua or not. UWI scientists, NOT the Americans, noted the historical significance of yesterday's event.

4. EXPLAIN EVENTS. Whether by dint of your own research (NOT Wikipedia) or by talking to English-speaking scientists (good luck), explain events and the region's vulnerability. I heard a leading Barbadian broadcaster, inductee of the Caribbean Broadcasting Hall of Fame saying that as far as he knew, "Barbados is not in the hurric... er... earthquake ... er .. belt." Really? Explain, for example, why the magnitude of a quake is not an indicator of destructive capacity alone, as if the Saffir-Simpson hurricane scale. The depth of the quake is a significant issue. How big, yes, but how deep? Mr Hall-of-Famer is yet to tell us. Don't give me a reason to switch off the radio and switch on the Net. Be comprehensive, explain and repeat.

5. RADIO IS COMMUNITY. BE THE COMMUNITY. What was the first thing that people did when the earth moved? Ok, the next thing? They turned on the radio. Not the TV, the radio. They want reassurance, information, help, whether buildings toppled or if they just felt someone moved the car. Be there for them by staying on the air as long as possible, punctuating the news you are gathering with their eyewitness accounts. NOBODY hears that wonderful five-minute report you did 30 minutes to an hour later. It might be as shaky a broadcast as the tremors, but be there and STAY there. You don't have to be a 24-hour news channel to do live continuous NEWS.

6. IF IT'S A LITTLE SHAKE HERE, IT'S APOCALYPSE NOW SOMEWHERE ELSE. Ok, so you felt something. You can't be the official gauge for either a nation or a region. We are inter-connected thanks to the Earth's tasty crust. So whether your prime ministers aren't speaking to each other, WE need to be speaking to our fellow Caribbean nations and bringing our colleagues on the air. A ripple here may be a major event somewhere else. Also make the connection between what people do and disaster. An earthquake is a hazard, an event, not a disaster. A disaster happens when people die or are injured or are displaced by what we do - like build crappy buildings in crappy areas. Make the connection. Kudos to you who did. Too many did not.

7. PLAN FOR NEXT TIME. And there will be a next time. It might be an earthquake. It might a freak storm. It might be a mass casualty event, like a bus or plane crash (God forbid). It's funny; if a geriatric governor general or an ailing prime minister finally meets his/her maker, we are on the radio like white on rice. But when sudden weather or earth movements roll, how prepared are we to go on the air, link up with the community and feed them information? There are newsrooms that work only to the next newscast. Those days are long gone, friends. The deadline is now, not six o'clock.

8. RECAP. REPEAT. RE-TELL. Don't get off the air because you've spent an hour and you think that's enough. That's why our listeners switch us off and go watch CNN to learn what's happening in their backyard. Thanks to such simple, cheap software like Cool Edit, we can record off the air and turn a clip around in seconds. We can turn around a vital live interview we did with the emergency chief and repeat it, until new information becomes available. We can simply repeat the basic details that will form the basis of our major news programme. In other words, we are writing the story as it happened and telling it and re-telling it. I did not hear too many instances of information being repeated.

9. HOW NET-SAVVY ARE YOU? REALLY? If you have Internet access, consider assigning a web-savvy reporter to monitor the web, for solid information, bloggers, message boards etc. Make sure that the reporter knows where to go for authentic, authoritative information. Don't quote some website in Kansas because it was first on the Google search list.

This is not the benefit of hindsight. Those who know me well know that I've been urging stations to adopt a rolling news plan, either for significant events or significant periods of the day. Give the raving lunatic talk show host a rest and let the newsroom take over next time.

Let's get news directors, seniors and juniors together to write a rolling news plan. Radio won't kill the newsroom star. It might just make one - and keep us informed when we need it most.

Let's not kid ourselves. Really ask ourselves if yesterday was broadcast journalism's finest hour. Search ourselves not just for the answer but the solution.