Al Jazeera Journalism Review

Outside image
A couple are rescued from under rubble of a collapsed building in Antakya on February 14, 209 hours after the earthquakes hit Turkey [Sergen Sezgin/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images]

Field notes from an earthquake - reporting on human misery

Where do you draw the line when covering human suffering? When does reporting on a devastating earthquake cross over from objective journalism to tasteless voyeurism?

 

When my phone rang on a Monday at 5 o'clock in the morning in Istanbul and I saw my colleague's number flash up, I knew that something was happening. 

"An earthquake in the southeast," he told me. It was of a magnitude of around 7.7, he added, which meant, as I knew immediately, hundreds of victims. 

More than 600 people had died in the Van earthquake in 2011, which was recorded at 7.4, while 117 perished in the Izmir quake in 2020, with a 7.1 force. I had covered both from Istanbul, as my news agency had sent other people to the field, but I was familiar with the images on TV. 

At noon it became clear that I had to go. 

I grabbed a few sweaters and the video camera and hopped on a plane that arrived at night in Adana, the only major city in the region where life was still normal - only a few buildings had fallen down on the outskirts of the city. 

I rented the last available car at the airport and started driving to the more badly hit cities. First to Osmaniye, not too far away,  which allowed me a gradual approach to the magnitude of the disaster. 

Osmaniye seemed somewhat normal at first sight, although abandoned: life had stopped here and all the buildings were empty - most of them damaged, but still standing. I had to search around a little in order to find a collapsed building where rescue work was in process, but there I recorded the typical earthquake scenery, good for video shooting and good for getting quotes from people watching the rescue teams on top of the rubble and the bulldozer at the edge. 

You need people who are first-hand witnesses to tell you some stuff, so you can write a lively story from the field. But it is difficult to come up with a question when you already know the answers. 

It would be silly to ask: "What has happened here?" And when you finally draw up some comment like: "Do you think there is still hope for survivors?" in order to start a conversation with an elderly man, and he answers: "It's not easy but we cannot lose hope. My sister is under there", then it's still more difficult to find the next question. Should I ask him how he feels? Really? 

earthquake
Two men and a child are rescued by search and rescue teams on February 18 from under the rubble of a collapsed building 296 hours after the powerful twin earthquakes hit Turkiye on February 6 [Esref Musa/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images]

When doing translation tasks for other journalists or film-makers, I've often been told to ask interviewees how they feel about what has happened to them. I've never liked it. 

I think journalism should gather facts and also, of course, people’s opinions, their desires and outlooks. To find out what people think is an important part of journalism. But is there anything we do not know about what it means to lose a loved one in a disaster? Do we suppose that people in those far away places in the world where disasters happen do feel differently than ourselves about the most basic things in life and death? I don't think so. 

So I ask about some details of the collapsed buildings and prepare myself for a live connection with a Spanish TV channel. It is a gossip programme with a million viewers that I have taken great care never to watch throughout my life, but they are paying my agency for this 45 seconds of a reporter in the field appearing on their screen and I can't argue - somebody has to cover the costs of this trip. 

In fact they get only 30 seconds because after having me waiting for 15 minutes with the video call running, my battery just dies in the middle of my connection. I'm quite happy that none of the bystanders has been able to see what they were talking about during these 15 minutes: the boyfriend of the niece of a former celebrity. 

The next call is worse: another gossipy TV programme wants a live coverage but with a "human story", which means something that people will cry about, I guess. I cannot refuse, but am quite relieved when technical problems finally make the connection impossible. 

When doing translation tasks for other journalists, I've often been told to ask interviewees how they feel about what has happened to them. I've never liked it 

 

You cannot multiply grief by numbers, somebody once said. You can feel sorrow for one person who has died and more sorrow for 10 people killed, but you cannot feel three thousand times more grief again when the number climbs to 30,000 victims. 

I didn't know any of them personally. My grief is abstract. I'm sorrowful, but I keep doing my job, which is reporting what happened and trying to find some elements of the answer to the question of why it happened, or rather, why there are now 30,000 victims and rising, when other earthquakes, not so much bigger, had stayed in the hundreds. And why Antakya, which is 175 km from the epicentre, has seen a level of destruction much worse than any of the bigger cities much closer to the central point.

In Antakya, my grief suddenly became personal. Before this trip, I had visited the city three times - once for work in 2011, when Syrian refugees started arriving, and twice for holidays, in 2013 and 2018. I love the place. 

I have long been adamant that Antakya is the most charming city in Turkey. I could go on for hours about its cultural richness, the open-mindedness of its inhabitants who belong to so many different religions and nationalities  - Sunni, Alawi, Orthodox Christian, Armenian, Jewish -  that they would often refuse to specify their faith and just say: "We are Antakyans."

I could wax lyrical about its nightlife and its many small restaurants in its centuries-old stone buildings and its historical centre, where children would play hopscotch in the street. 

But this time, I arrived in a car, tried to park somewhere not far from the river and realised that nothing was left of the city but a heap of rubble. Antakya was gone. And perhaps it may never come back to life.

I still haven’t written that story. I have had no time for it. 

earthquake
Overwhelmed by devastation: Demolishing works and debris removal efforts continue in Antakya after the powerful twin earthquakes hit the area [Erhan Sevenler/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images]

I accompanied a Spanish rescue team searching for survivors, I spoke to people gathering every night around a fire, looking at the debris of what had been their homes. I sat with those waiting to find a family member who perhaps still could be saved if some rescuer happened to come by soon enough, or most probably just could be pulled out, identified and buried. 

I was expecting to hear criticism of the government for a late and badly coordinated response to the earthquake, and my agency expected me to write about it, but in Antakya, I couldn't gather any quotes about the subject. 

I didn't ask directly either, not wanting to provoke anger that people weren’t even harbouring - that would be shaping reality instead of observing it. I assumed that if they had complaints, they would tell me, as a foreign reporter. In Iskenderun, people did. In Antakya, the vision of a whole city swept away was perhaps so overwhelming as to render politics irrelevant.

As a journalist, you're supposed to uncover wrongdoings and to name culprits, or at least that is the way we like to see our jobs. 

Before flying down to the region, I supposed that many of the buildings that had collapsed in Antakya would be cheaply built dwellings hastily erected in the last decade to accommodate needy Syrian refugees. I had a story there, I thought. I was wrong. 

What had been razed to the ground was centuries-old Antakya, and most of all its expensive and fashionable neighbourhoods in the centre. 

Back in Istanbul, I didn't call an architect. I called a geologist. I learned things about fault lines, soil conditions and the expansion and deadly overlapping of seismic shockwaves in soft alluvial sediments like those of the Orontes river plain where Antakya was built 23 centuries ago. 

It wasn't a big story but it helped to answer the one question I could not stop asking myself: why Antakya?

 

More Articles

Why Journalists are Speaking out Against Western Media Bias in Reporting on Israel-Palestine

Over 1500 journalists from various US news organizations have signed an open letter criticizing the Western media's coverage of Israel's actions against Palestinians. They accuse newsrooms of dehumanizing rhetoric, bias, and the use of inflammatory language that reinforces stereotypes, lack of context, misinformation, biased language, and the focus on certain perspectives while diminishing others. They call for more accurate and critical coverage, the use of well-defined terms like "apartheid" and "ethnic cleansing," and the inclusion of Palestinian voices in reporting.

Belle de Jong journalist
Belle de Jong Published on: 26 Feb, 2024
Silenced Voices and Digital Resilience: The Case of Quds Network

Unrecognized journalists in conflict zones face serious risks to their safety and lack of support. The Quds Network, a Palestinian media outlet, has been targeted and censored, but they continue to report on the ground in Gaza. Recognition and support for independent journalists are crucial.

Yousef Abu Watfe يوسف أبو وطفة
Yousef Abu Watfeh Published on: 21 Feb, 2024
Artificial Intelligence's Potentials and Challenges in the African Media Landscape

How has the proliferation of Artificial Intelligence impacted newsroom operations, job security and regulation in the African media landscape? And how are journalists in Africa adapting to these changes?

Derick M
Derick Matsengarwodzi Published on: 18 Feb, 2024
Media Blackout on Imran Khan and PTI: Analysing Pakistan's Election Press Restrictions

Implications and response to media censorship and the deliberate absence of coverage for the popular former Prime Minister, Imran Khan, and his party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), in the media during the 2024 elections in Pakistan.

Anam Hussain
Anam Hussain Published on: 14 Feb, 2024
Digital Battlegrounds: The New Broadcasting Bill and Independent Journalism in India

New legislation in India threatens the freedom of independent journalism. The draft Broadcasting Services (Regulation) Bill, 2023 grants the government extensive power to regulate and censor content, potentially suppressing news critical of government policies.

Safina
Safina Nabi Published on: 11 Feb, 2024
Pegasus Spyware: A Grave Threat to Journalists in Southeast Asia

The widespread deployment of spyware such as Pegasus in Southeast Asia, used by governments to target opposition leaders, activists, and journalists, presents significant challenges in countering digital surveillance. This is due to its clandestine operations and the political intricacies involved. The situation underscores the urgent need for international cooperation and heightened public awareness to address these human rights infringements.

AJR Contributor Published on: 5 Feb, 2024
Media Monopoly in Brazil: How Dominant Media Houses Control the Narrative and Stifle Criticism of Israel

An in-depth analysis exploring the concentration of media ownership in Brazil by large companies, and how this shapes public and political narratives, particularly by suppressing criticism of Israel.

Al Jazeera Logo
Rita Freire & Ahmad Al Zobi Published on: 1 Feb, 2024
Monitoring of Journalistic Malpractices in Gaza Coverage

On this page, the editorial team of the Al Jazeera Journalism Review will collect news published by media institutions about the current war on Gaza that involves disinformation, bias, or professional journalistic standards and its code of ethics.

A picture of the Al Jazeera Media Institute's logo, on a white background.
Al Jazeera Journalism Review Published on: 30 Jan, 2024
Cameroonian Media Martyrs: The Intersection of Journalism and Activism

Experts and journalists in Cameroon disagree on the relationship between journalism and activism: some say journalism is activism; others think they are worlds apart, while another category says a “very thin” line separate both

Nalova Akua
Nalova Akua Published on: 28 Jan, 2024
Silent Suffering: The Impact of Sexual Harassment on African Newsrooms

Sexual harassment within newsrooms and the broader journalistic ecosystem is affecting the quality and integrity of journalistic work, ultimately impacting the organisation’s integrity and revenue.

Derick M
Derick Matsengarwodzi Published on: 23 Jan, 2024
Echos of Israeli Discourse in Latin American Media on Gaza

Heavily influenced by US and Israeli diplomatic efforts, Latin American media predominantly aligns with and amplifies the Israeli perspective. This divergence between political actions and media representation highlights the complex dynamics shaping Latin American coverage of the Gaza conflict.

Rita Freire Published on: 23 Nov, 2023
Why have opposition parties in India issued a boycott of 14 TV presenters?

Media workers in India argue that boycotts of individual journalists are not the answer to pro-Government reporting bias

Saurabh Sharma
Saurabh Sharma Published on: 23 Oct, 2023
The bombs raining down on Gaza from Israel are beyond scary, beyond crazy

REPORTER'S NOTEBOOK: As Israel bombarded Gaza for the third night, I found myself closer to a missile hit than I could have imagined

Maram
Maram Humaid Published on: 11 Oct, 2023
Reporter’s Notebook - what I learned from covering the Kalash people

As journalists, our fascination with Indigenous communities can blind us to our ethical obligations to respect privacy and dignity of those we document - we must reflect carefully

Anam Hussain
Anam Hussain Published on: 5 Oct, 2023
The French banlieues and their troubled relationship with the media

Discriminatory media coverage of recent unrest in the suburbs of Paris shows that little has changed since the uprisings of 2005

AN
Ahmed Nazif Published on: 28 Sep, 2023
Why are Zimbabwe’s elections always surrounded by media controversy?

Election season in Zimbabwe has long been shrouded in controversy, with intimidation of opposition activists and journalists, combined with disorganisation at the ballots creating a perfect storm for chaos. This year was no different

Derick M
Derick Matsengarwodzi Published on: 25 Sep, 2023
Analysis: The media’s coverage of the Pakistan cable car incident

It was a roller coaster ride with news organisations all over the world giving minute-by-minute reports on the daring rescue. How does the media create suspense and is this sort of coverage useful?

Anam Hussain
Anam Hussain Published on: 21 Sep, 2023
How to use data to report on earthquakes

Sifting through data sounds clinical, but journalists can use it to seek out the human element when reporting on natural disasters such as earthquakes

Arwa
Arwa Kooli Published on: 19 Sep, 2023
‘I had no idea how to report on this’ - local journalists tackling climate change stories

Local journalists are key to informing the public about the devastating dangers of climate change but, in India, a lack of knowledge, training and access to expert sources is holding them back

Saurabh Sharma
Saurabh Sharma Published on: 13 Sep, 2023
Ethical reporting - how to cover suicide responsibly

Sensationalist reporting of suicide cases has been shown to cause a rise in the numbers of people taking their own lives in affected communities. Journalists must take great care

Abeer Ayyoub
Abeer Ayyoub Published on: 7 Sep, 2023
‘Don’t let someone else narrate your stories for you’ - travel journalists in the global south

THE LONG READ: Life as a travel journalist isn’t just for privileged Westerners ‘discovering’ quaint parts of south-east Asia and Africa

Anam Hussain
Anam Hussain Published on: 1 Sep, 2023
‘People need to stop blindly obeying the law’ - journalists fighting on the fringes in Vietnam

THE LONG READ: Imprisoned, exiled and forced to base themselves overseas, independent journalists in Vietnam are punished harshly if they publish the ‘wrong’ sort of content. Some, such as Luật Khoa tạp chí, are fighting back

headshot
AJR Correspondent Published on: 25 Aug, 2023
Ethics and safety in OSINT - can you believe what you see?

OSINT is increasingly important for journalists in a digital world. We take a look at ethics, safety on the internet and how to spot a ‘deepfake’

Sara
Sara Creta Published on: 15 Aug, 2023
‘Other journalists jeer at us’ – life for mobile journalists in Cameroon

Journalists in Cameroon are using their phones in innovative ways to report the news for many different types of media, but major news organisations have still not caught up

Akem
Akem Nkwain Published on: 1 Aug, 2023