As I watch the news of the Delhi blasts unfold on TV and Twitter, it strikes me how dysfunctional our response to a crisis is. While the government is obsessed with policing the internet and social media for spreading misinformation, on Twitter I saw little evidence of it. And trust me, if it is spreading currently, it is on Twitter. On the other hand, the news channels seem to be more about earning off the incident than reporting it.
Live coverage. Endless live coverage saying over and over and over the same thing - blast at gate 5 of Delhi High Court at entry of high security area, people injured, no information on blast.
For a long time after the blast, this was all the news people had. And the channels were repeating it over and over constantly. News cameras showing people crowded. Watching. And the evergreen speculation. Star news also showed some injured people, etc initially.
What is the impact of this?
What does it do to the country to see blood and gore and constant repetition of scarce facts? It sounds like no one is releasing information. So the comments start. The government has goofed up again, careless, no security, no punishment, improper investigations, etc etc. It is the same pattern. Shock, eager broadcast and magnification and consumption of shock, find target to blame. Vent, move on. As a side dish, blame LeT or IM, etc. Speculate about intensity, explosives, vehicle, etc. Point out patterns of failure.
This helps no one. It can do harm to people who may have loved ones working in the area to get such a shock sensationalized to the max. It creates a spectacle out of suffering, creates a crowd around the site and a ripe target for any secondary attach that could be planned.
No matter what the blast is, this is our pattern. Could we have more functional patterns? Some things that come to mind.
- Emergency Services should liaise one contact for confirmed news with media. Media must understand that a lack of news is not news, it is important things being done in order to get more news.
- Ideally, unless there is a steady flow of news, there shouldn't be non-stop coverage of repetitive scanty information and human suffering.
- Journalists should be trained to do background work off camera. There really is no need for us to see the cameraman panning around like a bewildered victim. This isn't a Hindi film. If there is nothing to show, no need to wave the camera around and pretend it is a shot because there is a crowd in the frame.
- Journalists should be trained to confirm information carefully and not interview spectators for speculation or opinions. Facts should be verified off camera before broadcast. Treating a shocked by standers reaction as though it is somehow an authoritative voice on the matter is misleading and unnecessary. The story is the blast, not what people think about it.
- References and data about other attacks or crisises should be verified and used carefully. The guy on AajTak was talking about a blast in Mumbai 3 months and 13 days before. The mathematics of time is right, but excuse me, there were three blasts.
- Media should focus more on guiding people than they currently do. "Injured have been taken to hospital" is not as useful as Injured have been taken to ABC and XYZ hospitals. It takes a minute to find out. It matters.
- People should be dispersed as soon as possible to minimize risk rather than only sounding alerts and managing crowds. Those actively not assisting rescue or seeking missing people should be encouraged to leave and follow news through the media.
- Evacuated people and crowds and media should be taken to a spot at some distance and out of the way of vehicles and rescue workers.
- We need a SOP for emergencies. For example:
- Immediate assistance from crowd to injured, evacuation of dead.
- Information on where injured/dead are being taken
- Minimal disturbance of scene except for injured/dead or preventing damage from spreading.
- Police and rescue workers should collect local information and verify before publishing.
- Media should focus on factual information on incident and guiding viewers with reference to it - including hospitals, names of victims, blood banks, any medical needs, suggestions to citizens to facilitate emergency response like avoiding traffic area, instructions for further safety/alert like avoiding crowded area or reminders to be alert for orphan objects, information on any suspects, confirmed details of incident.
- Spread useful information on social networks.
- Volunteer and use volunteers to connect missing people with searching people or needs with offers of help. Social media can be very useful like that.
- Consciously avoid an immediate flurry of interviews and demands for statements. Those are reactions. Not news. They can and should wait rather than jumping at the beck and call of terrorists.
- Speculation on culprits. No matter who the hotshot is saying that it looks like the signature of someone or the other, it is an educated guess at best and shot in the dark more likely.
- Repetitive accounts of panic.
- Shots of injured
- Increases in numbers of dead/injured from unverified sources.
- Blame games.
- Idealistic and inflammatory, but inherently stupid criticism like "why wasn't the gate inside the high security?" - D'uh. If the gate was inside the high security, the bomb would have exploded outside whatever the entry point for high security was, where people crowded to clear security. No one can guess where an attack will happen, and it is very naive to say "high security protect everything all the time - this is the capital"
- Avoid clogging telephone networks. Switch to Twitter and Facebook as far as possible.
- Don't try to immediately check on absolutely everyone you know. There is help at the accident site for all victims. Check on your loved ones as briefly as possible and free telephone lines.
- Use social media, SMSes and phone calls as last option. Think of keeping phones free for emergency calls as similar to keeping roads free for emergency response.
Overall, I think that our response to things like blasts needs to become much more low key and very "down to essentials". Terrorism isn't something we can security our way out of. Nothing can be guarded at high alert all the time. Certainly not entire countries, cities or even localities. It would be like living in a prison even if it were possible, which it is not.
However, it is important to understand that terrorism is a mind game. The terrorists don't know the victims at all. They have nothing against them. The attack is on the system. A fight of policing will always be one step behind. Intelligence will be better at preventing, but more difficult to obtain. On the other hand, what we are in control of is how the results play out.
If a terror attack creates terror, it succeeds. Even if it is no more than a bomb scare. We need to consciously deny the result. Dampen the fear without compromising safety. Factual news reporting with a conscious intent to impart information AND prevent panic will go a long way as an anti-terror initiative. Deliberately starving terrorism of the oxygen of attention smothers its impact. People cannot fear what they don't know they could fear.
Unless I see bewildered crowds wandering around lost in front of an iconic institution of the country, all that the blast means is a security problem, no more or less sad than a plane crash. It is the reporting that takes a blast with x number dead and y number injured and turns it into this scary and insecure state of our country, etc etc. In other words, we play the terror game and further the interests of the terrorists. Every time some statement is made with a knee jerk accusation of some LeT or IM or whoever, whether guilty or not, their commander is glad, because their fearsome reputation just got reinforced for free. The next time they send a threat, media will oblige with a list of attacks they were suspected in - the association itself (true or not) lending weight to their words.
How effective would bombs remain as terror attacks if instead of getting live coverage and takes and retakes of shock and horror and disappointment in the country, they got reported as stories of rescue, actions being taken, needs, information, what people should do, etc - in other words, mobilized the country as needed and ignored the criminals about whom not much is known anyway and the personal trauma? What would it be like, if a terrorist sending an email to a news channel got no response other than investigation by anti-terror squad? Or a call got hanged up on or ignored, traced and investigated instead of being reported and analyzed and publicly promoted for free?
Sure, we have a right to information. Sure, we have freedom of media. The question is if panic responses and speculation can count as information or we accept "press releases" from terror groups. Does anyone have the right to use a national medium to spread fear causing unconfirmed misinformation? Or is this about the right of media houses to peddle real suffering as a horror show for fun and profit?
If you guys can suggest what you think would be a good idea for a standard plan of response to security emergencies, I would like to compile it as a resource to offer people more positioned to act on such issues.