12 Nov 2013

Reporting disaster: vital and necessary

My Twitter feed, since arriving in the Philippines, suggests there are a lot of misapprehensions out there about disaster journalism. Here are my responses.


‘We are vultures’

Some might say yes, we are. A magnificent and increasingly threatened species (between 20 and 30 journos missing right now in Syria alone – yes, 30). We are found in unpleasant places but doing the essential job of alerting the world to death, pestilence and general putrefaction and actually helping clear it up (see below) – much as our raptor alter egos do daily. A necessary function in the food-chain without which matters would be unthinkably worse.

So we may be ugly as we gather and fly in – but as I will make clear, imagine the result if we didn’t go to places so many would never dream of going, still less be able to function upon arrival.

I’m a vulture and proud. As a keen birder I also adore real vultures – but that’s beside the point.

‘We get in the way’

I have never, ever, taken up space that could be occupied by aid or a medic or other vital aid worker. And why? Because it isn’t my call. Quite sensibly the Philippine military allow us on transport flights only when they’d otherwise be transporting fresh air. That’s why we came south from Manila in a C130 packed with jet fuel drums. We sat on the floor in the space in between.

‘You got on a helicopter – they could have carried aid instead’

Yes, they could. Yes, they would. If they had any. As it happened, on both sorties we filmed the story that the expected aid hadn’t arrived so they lifted off simply with what they had.

The military and government are delighted to have us take up otherwise empty space. It raises morale here and when we land. From victims to air-crew, people feel buoyed that we’ve come to tell their stories, show their plight to the world. Embarrassingly enough, people constantly thank us for bothering – however absurd that may be. It is a universal response you confront every time there’s a major natural disaster.

‘It’s just sick tourism’

Consider this Рas a result of our hopefully leaving only footprints and taking only images, that money Рserious money Рflows to the NGOs on the front line.

‘Leave it to the charities’

If we did, then what? Would people rather not know these things happen? The charities do a great job in often remarkably difficult circumstances, but if you don’t know then, ergo, you don’t put your hand in your pocket.

If, like me, you have arrived ahead of almost all media in, say, Goma in Zaire (as it then was) to find people dropping dead all around your tent. And you have then watched the global TV village arrive to cover a major humanitarian disaster. If you were there you would have watched Goma airport move from a quiet place to a 24/7 air transport hub of Antonovs and giant Starlifter transport jets.

And why? Because of TV news footage of people living in circumstances and horror nobody should have to endure. Telling the world this is happening simply makes it better. The aid machine is stimulated as nothing else can do.

‘You’re not needed’

Tell that to Manila. Tell that to World Vision, MSF, Oxfam, Christian Aid and the Red Cross – to all the charities and aid agencies emailing me. They’re desperately¬†trying to get coverage. Every correspondent will have more. To be rather crude, they want us here, want our coverage, need our coverage. Why shouldn’t they? We can all do critical items on NGOs and aid policy and we do – on another day for now.

So next time you are lucky enough to see the vultures circle on the thermals, think twice about the message they send.

Follow @AlexTomo on Twitter

To contribute to the Disasters Emergency Committee’s Philippines typhoon appeal, go to their website: www.dec.org.uk

Read Lindsey Hilsum’s blog: War and journalists: why do we go?

Tweets by @alextomo

4 reader comments

  1. Owen says:

    Well said, and all perfectly logical to boot. But this doesn’t sit well with Twitter’s windbags, who log on to imperiously have their say, before returning to Corrie/Arcade Fire’s new album/whatever.

    The internet gave everyone a voice. But pretty soon, it became clear that many just weren’t worth listening to.

  2. Murphy says:

    Sad but true Alex. No publicity. No money. No money. No help.

  3. Philip Edwards says:


    I would not trust most journos as far as they could fall.

    But I don’t place you amongst that lot.

    You may make presentational mistakes occasionally, but that is all they are. Other journos simply lie or try to make themselves look good for career reasons: even C4 News has a few of those.

    Meanwhile, keep up the “good” work in an impossible and terribly tragic situation. Your reporting there is every bit as exemplary and moving as it was from Japan and Syria.

    Mostly, words are superfluous. The pictures say it all. But for this Joe Dough at least you always seem to find the right words somehow, somewhere. I still relish the way you confronted that utter thug Kelvin Mackenzie.

    Thanks for all you do. There aren’t enough Alex Thomsons in your profession. The Leveson Inquiry showed why.

  4. Eoin Murphy says:

    Well said! You keep doing your job and ignore the armchair critics!

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