Media expert Ann Hollifield will moderate a panel discussion on media resilience at this week's International Journalism Festival in Perugia. We spoke to her ahead of the event.
While media organizations constantly report on disasters – such as the recent massive earthquake in Turkey – they are often unprepared for them.
DW Akademie: The recent past has shown how exposed media outlets are to sudden shocks and disruptions – violent conflicts, the COVID-19 pandemic, natural disasters, or economic downturns. Why are media outlets often not prepared for crises?
Ann Hollifield: Because news organizations are run by human beings. We are neurologically wired to believe that bad things will not happen to us. That predisposition is a major impediment to anybody preparing for crises and disasters, whether individually or organizationally.
More importantly, journalists and news organizations are exposed to disaster and crisis constantly, because that's what they cover. As we know from psychology, constant exposure to something dulls your brain's ability to chemically recognize a threat and respond to it. In news organizations, that constant incremental exposure to crisis makes journalists less likely to believe that it will happen to them and more likely to believe that if it does happen to them, they'll be able to cope with it, because they've seen it so much.
Also, preparing for crisis requires both time and money. Obviously, news organizations around the world are financially strapped. It becomes a very difficult management decision to invest incredibly scarce resources into buying equipment and training journalists to prepare for something that in fact may never happen.
How can media outlets be convinced that crisis planning is crucial?
Crisis preparedness is an incredibly important long-term business strategy. A crisis impacts the ability of a news organization to produce news at a time when its audiences need it most. Suddenly, at the time the demand for information is greatest, your financial resources are going to take the hardest hit, unless you have put aside funds to help carry you through those times prior to the disaster occurring.
If your community is hit by a crisis that disrupts the economy or leads to a permanent outflow of population, the market you're serving drops as does the long-term revenue potential of your news organization. Those kinds of issues need to be clear to management so that they start recognizing the importance of preparing for risks that come along with any crisis.
Ann Hollifield is Prof. Emeritus at the University of Georgia and a senior research consultant for DW Akademie
What have successful media outlets done right in preparing for a crisis?
Obviously, the first step is having previously thought through what might happen and prepare for it. Another critically important element is – prior to any form of crisis or disaster – having developed strong cooperative networks with other news media organizations: those immediately around you in your market environment, and also others that are more distant, in some cases out of the country. If you are expecting a government crackdown, or civil unrest, you will need ongoing cooperative support, whether it's in the use of shared production facilities or simply in terms of getting your content out of the country and then back through a third party.
Which crises of tomorrow are already knocking on the door and how can media organizations prepare?
There are three main things that no news organization today should be ignoring. First, an ever-growing number of countries are facing a greater likelihood of government crackdowns or attempts to interfere with the press. In many places, we are seeing an erosion of trust in the public in media. Consequently, there's less public support for free and independent working media which makes government action more possible because a public backlash is less likely.
Second, climate change has put every single news organization and every community at risk. Preparing for climate-fueled disasters is something that every news organization should be thinking through.
And last but not least, digital technologies have become the backbone of news production and distribution. No news organization can afford to ignore the digital threats to its security and its ability to produce and distribute news.
When you look at the panel that you will be discussing with at the International Journalism Festival, what are the stories that resonate with you?
The panelists who will be with me in Perugia are the best possible people to encourage their colleagues to pay attention to crisis planning. All of them have had incredible experience in keeping news organizations functioning and independent, and serving the people who need them through unbelievable challenges. Their stories are inspiring and compelling and frankly, very frightening and discouraging. The audience will hear about how much thinking through potential risks before they came to pass has helped them to succeed and continue operating.
Ultimately, you can't say it enough: They are serving a public who desperately needs the kinds of information that they are providing. And that is what resilience and crisis planning is all about: Making sure that we can be here to serve the public need, at a time when we are needed most.
A good place to start with crisis planning: DW Akademie’s media resilience scanner.
DW Akademie interviewed media executives and journalists from more than 15 countries who had gone through crises. The media resilience scanner breaks those experiences down into different types of crises, with advice on how to prepare, how to manage during a crisis, and how to get through the aftermath, so that you can remain viable going forward.