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close this bookIDNDR - Informs - Number 13, 1998 (IDNDR-DIRDN, 1998)
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Editorial - The use of the media in disaster prevention

Disaster prevention begins with timely and accurate information. When there is clarity in the perception of risk, we tend to minimize the possible consequences event. By means of sounds, images, and the printed word, the mass media report on what is going on in the world, but they can do much more. They can explain the significance of events; they can serve as guides through an uncertain terrain, an teachers in a world where a high penalty must be paid for ignorance.

If providing information means conveying the most complete available knowledge of an event, in this case natural phenomena, reporters and media outlets should not give in to sensationalism, which essentially means communicating only the most alarming information, not the most illuminating. They should explain what is going on in the clearest and simplest manner, and provide the data and background the public needs to respond effectively to an emergency.

When disasters strike, information diversifies and increases in volume. In journalistic terms, there are many more stories, and many more "angles to each story. Therefore, communicators have the right to receive training about the sensitive handling of natural phenomena, and should strive to get such training. The information in question is delicate, and requires specialized skills that cannot be learned in the middle of a crisis. The media may give in to tabloid-inspired pictures of devastation and chaos, or they may cooperate responsibly to reduce the impact of the tragedy and promote the most effective public response.

Scientific and technological advances now enable us to predict many natural phenomena. The media can play a key role in prevention and early warning by educating large numbers of people through radio, television, newspapers, magazines and even leaflets, clarifying the issues, and providing guidance. New technologies such as E-mail, Usenet, and the World-Wide Web (WWW) provide additional feedback, optimizing human resources and helping reporters do a better job.

Social communication for prevention is a process that requires the coordinated efforts of many disciplines. The mass media must play their part, by informing the public of existing hazards, and by educating the population on practical measures they can take to reduce their vulnerability. At the same time, public information departments can launch campaigns to raise public awareness and contribute to a culture of disaster prevention, a culture that has not yet taken hold in our region. Another key component is the existence of efficient, comprehensive information systems that can support policy- and decision-makers.

The media have a social responsibility to provide accurate and useful information about disasters, not only while they are taking place, or when the tragic consequences of such events come to light but also before they occur. A culture of prevention must first take hold among reporters and commentators. They will then act as amplifiers to make sure the message reaches the audience that ultimately matters most: those who are directly threatened by natural hazards, but who can also do the most to prevent and mitigate emergencies.

Its geography has made Latin America and the Caribbean vulnerable to natural disasters both climatological (such as floods, drought and hurricanes) and geological (earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and tsunamis). As if that were not enough, people's behaviour is modifying the environment, altering ecological cycles through excessive deforestation, overgrazing, and farming, as well as through the establishment of settlements in high-risk areas. However, if human beings can change their environment for ill, their values and actions can also play a key role in the prevention and mitigation of natural disasters.

The relevance of this issue explains why the 1998 IDNDR campaign slogan is "Natural disaster prevention begins with information". The goal is to recruit communicators and media outlets as partners in promoting preventive measures to protect the public from the consequences of natural disasters.

In this issue of IDNDR Informs, we include a series of papers, expert opinions and experiences on the subject of social communication and disaster prevention and response throughout the region.