Media Coverage After a Disaster: Lessons from Turkey

At a time when citizens were at their most vulnerable, the spread of false information and dramatised reporting only made matters worse.

Despite the growing influence of social media, television channels and newspapers remain the biggest gatekeepers of information sharing. Traditional media not only informs the public, but also documents and shares information related to the earthquake in Turkey and communicates it with a wider audience through public officials and experts.

Risk communication is a multidisciplinary field that requires the interaction of actors involved in the process, in order to enable as uninterrupted communication with the public as possible. Disaster management, health communication and media risk communication constitute the main disciplines in this field.

The infodemic and social media

An infodemic is defined as people’s inability to access reliable and accurate information due to the prevalence of false information, especially in times of crises such as earthquakes.

In this process, the public is exposed to conspiracy theories, fake news and provocation more than ever. With the increasing need for accurate information in times of crises, an individual’s inability to distinguish between correct and incorrect information causes the infodemic to spread very quickly. This situation can then turn into a public health problem. This is what we saw happen during the big earthquake in Turkey and Syria on February 6.

For instance, voice recording saying “There will be a 6.3 magnitude earthquake in Samsun within an hour” spread on social media in a short time, and after a while it turned out that this rumour was unfounded.

We also witnessed the false claim that Turkish disaster management authority AFAD made a statement that an earthquake of 8.5 magnitude was expected in the evening. Fake calls for help were also made by some people on social media.

While TV channels provided information that the rescue work was carried out from the first moment, alternative and independent media learned that there was no access to most of the debris until the third day of the earthquake. Officials and local citizens personally tried to extract living and lifeless bodies from the debris with their own efforts, since there was no machine at hand. In other words, we have seen that what the media showed did not match with reality.

The fact that disinformation is widespread at such times is undeniable, but the introduction of social media restrictions to combat disinformation created an obstacle to solidarity, cooperation, freedom of communication and therefore the right to life during the earthquake. Given that, the restrictions on Twitter and TikTok were lifted soon after being imposed.

Media and questions

What is important here is how much and how the media includes the right and appropriate questions and criticisms in their news.

A journalist who goes down to the field should hold the microphone to the earthquake victims and the employees there. The fact that a channel reporter wants to avoid the views of an earthquake victim who says that they cannot get the necessary help causes a justified perception that citizens’ voices are being muzzled.

There were several important questions that needed asking: why the buildings built after the new earthquake regulations were destroyed, who is responsible for the supervision of the destroyed buildings, what is the fate of earthquake taxes, why the delay in intervention, cranes, construction machinery, generator containers, etc. Journalism cannot be done without asking questions about lack of equipment, water and electricity; journalists have to hold the powers that be accountable.

The task of the media is not only to publish updates on search and rescue operations, but also to bring out the failures and errors.

Claiming that the information shared by earthquake survivors is a lie creates a feeling of helplessness, hopelessness, resentment, anger and loneliness in the people who are experiencing this disaster.

News framing

Personalisation, dramatisation and conflict biases were often used in news framing. In this process, newspaper headlines and stories have tended to focus on human losses as ‘inevitable’, although this focus only leads fatalistic conclusions and can contribute to the devastation and desperation. On TV, the dramatic effects and music can also lead to furthering pain, instead of being a useful way to disseminate information.

The media, at a time like this, holds a heavy responsibility of reporting – it must bring out the details people need, like emergency contacts, where shelter is available, how to contact relatives, what security measures are in place, etc. Instead – by focusing on photos of children in distress with emotional captions, or using words like ‘miracle child’ – the focus seems to be on catching eyeballs with personalised and dramatic framing.

There is also an unnecessary focus on individual stories, thereby taking the news out of context. For instance, one reporter said, “Now I’m going to pass a microphone to the brick and say to the earthquake victim, ‘Mr. Ercan, can you hear me? Did the sound come? How many of you?'” The purpose of reportage of this kind is unclear, and may only heighten victims’ pain.


It is possible to empathise with a disaster victim for a reporter while asking questions, but this requires proper training. Information whose source is unreliable should not be transmitted, while reliable details should be presented objectively.

It is worth remembering the following statement from the Turkish Journalists Association’s Declaration of Journalist’s Rights and Responsibilities, under the heading ‘Shocking Situations’: “In the case of people in a state of sadness, distress, danger, destruction, disaster or shock, the journalist’s approach and investigation of the incident should be humane and avoid emotional exploitation by respecting confidentiality.”

News should not be delivered in a way that makes it harder for victims to rebuild their lives. Child victims, especially, should not be turned into “poster children”; this may cause children to have difficulty understanding their own situation. Long-lasting images of them in vulnerable situations can lead to further hurt.

Now more than ever, we need people to practice a rights-based journalism. Reporting should come from the perspective of the people and those affected by disaster, rather than only trying to make the system look good.

Yasemin Giritli İnceoğlu is a Visiting Professor of Media Studies at the LSE Media and Communication Department.

Edited by Jahnavi Sen.