In Deep Water

Reporters explore socio-economic complexity underlying floods in Brazil, Australia

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil — No one is singing in the rain. The mudslides here and the floods in Australia this month—both catastrophes of the first order—garnered a lot of press in the United States, and rightly so. Reporters have been calling both events the worst natural disasters the countries have ever experienced—but news coverage for each was anything but similar.

The mudslides in the state of Rio de Janeiro have displaced thousands of residents and resulted in over 800 deaths. In Queensland, Australia, the death toll was less (fewer than 100 people are estimated to have died), but the floods will have an enormous impact on the country’s economy by shutting down coal mines, cutting rail lines, and damaging crops. Reporters seemed to sense how to prioritize their stories—coverage of the mudslides in Rio revolved around the still mounting death toll, while reporters chose to focus on the economic impact of the floods in Queensland. It was quality reporting from journalists on both continents, even though readers could have benefited from a bit more diversity in news coverage exploring the socio-economic implications of both events.

A significant portion of coverage of the mudslides in Brazil has been devoted to human casualty and relief efforts aimed at helping the victims of the floods, and understandably so. Seeing as the mudslides affected the lives of tens of thousands of residents in Rio, it only makes sense for reporters to prioritize coverage in this manner. An article in the Los Angeles Times published seven days after the mudslides exemplified the tone and tenor or coverage elsewhere:

The death toll keeps rising as the mud is cleared in Brazil. More than 700 people have been reported killed in flash floods and mudslides last week in the state of Rio de Janeiro. More than 14,000 are homeless in one of the worst natural disasters in Brazilian history, officials said.

The stories trickling out of the remote mountainous region hardest hit by the slides are both moving and alarming.

With rescue crews arriving slowly due to poor weather and rugged terrain, survivors are digging out their own dead, and bodies are decomposing rapidly, spreading the smell of death.

There were also a lot of human-interest pieces highlighting the survivors, families of the victims, and even the volunteers who aided in the relief efforts. Describing the work here, for example, The Christian Science Monitor’s Taylor Barnes reported on January 16 that:

Many of those volunteering are students, and it helps that they are on their summer vacations, says Herculano Abrahão, who leads the Red Cross unit in the Teresópolis gym ‘Pedrão’ shelter.

He estimated on January 13 that 300 volunteers had already shown up to this shelter and smaller nearby ones, only a handful of whom were from the Red Cross itself.

These types of stories—highlighting the spirit of the affected nations—are always appropriate, but they are also predictable and don’t add much to readers’ knowledge of foreign affairs. Only a few reporters covered some of the political and social complexities surrounding the mudslides. Bloomberg News covered how the floods—an annual event—will add to the already rising inflationary pressures. The Wall Street Journal explained how changes in the public policy in Brazil could have reshaped the outcomes of the floods—citing local press outlet Estado de São Paulo:

“A look at public policy … or the lack thereof … reveals a long chain of unpreparedness, administrative incompetence, technical incapacity, and political irresponsibility,” wrote the Estado de S. Paulo, a leading daily, in a Monday editorial. Over the weekend, the newspaper reported that federal officials as recently as November admitted in documents that much of the country’s civil-defense network is “unprepared” to respond adequately to natural disasters.

If done properly, using and citing authoritative local press reports is a great way to ground American readers in the situation abroad. The Journal wasn’t the only one to successfully use this technique. News outlets ranging from AFP to The Trust quoted Brazilian press outlets like O Globo and Folha de São Paulo to better inform their readers.

The same can be said for the coverage of the floods in Australia, where reporters from news outlets like San Francisco Chronicle and AOL News used local publications like The Australian and The Sydney Morning Herald. But most of the similarities in coverage between Brazil and Australia stop there. While reporters did due diligence, keeping readers informed of the death toll in Queensland, there was more coverage on the economic impact of the floods. A typical article at Bloomberg News, for instance, reported that:

“One of the biggest casualties is likely to be our coal exports, with many mines shut down in big coal mining regions like the Bowen Basin, and supply chains severely hampered,” [Federal Treasurer Wayne] Swan said…

The cost to the nation of the clean up and rebuilding may be as much as $20 billion ($19.8 billion), economists forecast.

Bloomberg Businessweek and Reuters both ran a series of articles exploring
the potential impact the floods will have on the farming industry in Queensland, and what the government can do to alleviate the situation. The Wall Street Journal covered how the banks will deal with the flood costs and wrote about how the floods might affect the labor pool in the area. A handful of news outlets had some insightful commentary on how the farmers will respond to these floods. For example, The New York Times’s Aubrey Belford reported that:

While some farmers may leave the land because of the floods, the bigger threat in the longer term is still likely to be a lack of water, said Chris Cocklin, an environmental scientist who is the deputy vice chancellor of James Cook University in Queensland. Before the start of heavy rains late last year, a drought had persisted for more than a decade across the Murray-Darling Basin, a vast irrigated river system in eastern Australia that is the country’s most important agricultural area. In many areas, it would take years of significant rain to bring underground aquifers up to healthy levels, Dr. Cocklin said.

Nice depth. But even more impressive were reporters who branched out and compared the two natural disasters. Juxtaposing two distinct events like this is not easy, but most journalists who attempted to do so handled the task well. Comparisons can very quickly become misleading for a reader, preventing them from understanding each situation separately. We saw this happen with the Haiti-Katrina coverage a few years ago, but the coverage was better this time. According to an insightful article by Alexei Barrineuvo in The New York Times:

Disaster experts say that the stark difference in the death tolls in Brazil and Australia, where at least 28 people have died in flooding in the northeast in the past two weeks, reveal a wide gap in the preparedness of the countries and their flood management policies.

“In a country like Brazil, which is not a poor country, where technological expertise and resources are really not a problem, large numbers of people dying from floods is not a good sign,” Dr. Sapir said. What Brazil lacks, she said, are “the political will and the priority that public authorities must give to the issue of flood management.”

It’s this type of reporting that adds complexity to these types of events, especially when few reporters reach past the obvious. We wish that we could have seen more, but the impact of these disasters are still unfolding, so perhaps the best reportage is yet to come.

Many questions are still left unanswered. What are the problems the victims in Rio might face, beyond finding new housing? Is there going to be a risk of disease outbreaks in both countries? Can economic policies be adapted in Australia? Can housing policies improve in Brazil? Reporters did a good job prioritizing angles coverage in the immediate aftermath the disasters, and we hope that they will now address these lingering concerns, which will be vital to the recovery of all those affected, and to preparations for the next time that calamity strikes.

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Sanhita Reddy is a former Observatory intern currently living in Brazil on a Fulbright scholarship, studying the media sources people use to find health information. Tags: , , , ,