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Global Journalist: Disaster reporting poses many journalistic challenges

Friday, April 8, 2011 | 12:23 p.m. CDT

Journalists have a duty to report the news, even when it entails witnessing horror.

It takes a special breed of reporters to stay behind and tell the continuing saga of the people who call a disaster area home. The exposure to gruesome images and horrific stories can have mental consequences for journalists who delve deeply into a story to find the human faces affected by catastrophe.

Can journalists who “parachute in” during disasters provide the context necessary to tell the full story? On this week’s Global Journalist the guests discuss their own experiences documenting international disasters and the many challenges involved with this kind of reporting.

Watch this week's show and catch an extended interview with Jon Sawyer, executive director, Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

Highlights from this week's guests:

New York, New York: Bruce Shapiro, Executive Director, Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma

"The story of a disaster doesn't end when the fire is out, the debris is removed or the bodies are buried. What we cover when we cover breaking news or a rolling disaster, as it is in Japan now, is in fact Act I of the tragedy. These stories continue to resonate for the victims, the survivors and the societies for years. We have a big responsibility as journalists to cover Act II and put Act II on Page 1 … it's only in understanding the recovery phase and in understanding the long-term impact of disasters that we are able to come away with important lessons and understand just what it is that people go through."

New York, New York: Andrew Burton, Freelance Photojournalist

"We were driving down the coastal highway in the northeast corner of Japan, and we came to a flatland where the road had been completely washed out. We stopped the car, got out and wandered about. Behind us, a man on an electric scooter came rumbling down the hill and proceeded to stand up and survey the damage. It turned out that he was 91 years old and had lived there his entire life. We spent about 45 minutes with him as he walked along, pointing out where landmarks had been and explaining what life in his town had been like. He didn't act like a victim. He was very stoic."

Washington, DC: Jon Sawyer, Executive Director, Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting

"In an era when we have serious constraints on resources for journalism, especially when we are covering big, international issues, it seems to me that news organizations have not caught up with the reality that when there is a big breaking story, whether it's North Africa, Japan, the earthquake in Haiti last year, the Deepwater Horizon spill — people throw their resources at those stories. There is a huge amount of redundancy in the first coverage where the cable networks, the news organizations are all over that story for days … but a lot else goes unreported because there is simply not the resources. An example right now is that Nigeria is involved in elections that may or may not spark sectarian violence … The Ivory Coast is getting a disproportionately small amount of coverage compared to what is happening there."

Moscow: Will Englund, Foreign Correspondent, Washington Post

"In my experience, the most difficult assignment for me was when I was in Albania during the aerial bombardment of Kosovo when the country was still under the control of Serbian forces. I was by the Kosovoan border, and every day, there was a stream of refugees pouring out of Kosovo into Albania who told me these gruesome, gruesome stories. You could be talking to a woman who five hours ago had seen all of their children and husband shot. I had a feeling of powerlessness … I wanted to get their stories out to the world."

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