Stories of rebuilding after the floods

  • 20 January 2011

The media have been at their best in their coverage of the floods. They often are at times of disaster. But experience suggests that as the waters subside, and people move from immediate survival to stocktaking and rebuilding their lives, the coverage will become more scratchy.

The decline does not come from ill will. It suggests that in our culture we lack stories through which we can image intractable situations which require long endurance.

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The media have helped Australians distant from the events to appreciate the massive scale of the floods and the human reality of houses and farms overrun by the waters. They have told moving stories of quiet heroism, and of unselfish acceptance — 'we are lucky that we are not as badly affected as people elsewhere'.

They have mentioned the occasional scams and looting, and both highlighted and encouraged generosity which leads ordinary people to assist those affected by the floods. They have covered respectfully the presence of political leaders in affected areas, and helped them in their important role of showing the solidarity of the whole community in the face of catastrophe.

And they have raised the questions that subsequent enquiry must address.

This is what newspapers and other media do well. Their many reporters on the ground respond empathetically to the people whose suffering they record, and help us to see the events through their eyes. After the immediate crisis, however, the reporting and editing often becomes less helpful as they amplify discontents and disagreements, and seek out people to blame.

This focus is not helpful because it makes it difficult for people to come to terms with their loss and it undermines solidarity.

It is normal to experience depression, anger, denial and isolation in response to the violation of one's home and to financial loss and insecurity. These feelings need to be acknowledged and worked with. But in times of loss we need encouragement to look beyond our anger and sadness to the task of rebuilding our lives.

When the media focus on expressions of anger, treats delay in rebuilding as an outrage without looking at the broader picture, and try to identify people to blame for the severity of the floods, they encourage people to remain paralysed by grief and to break connections precisely at the time when they need to be strengthened.

But it is not easy for journalists. Our culture has many stories into which to fit floods and the immediate response to them, but few stories to accommodate the long, frustrating and painful task of rebuilding. Crisis stories of threat, heroes, victims and rescue are everywhere in scriptures and in mythology. But fewer stories tell of the longer and messy processes in which people suffer and recognise a great loss, are powerless to recover from it, and endure a long period of struggle to survive in the face of illusory hopes and almost fatal disappointments.

Such stories as do exist usually describe journeys. The seminal story of the Israelites wandering in the desert after liberation from Egypt tells of a generation without clear direction, constantly complaining. But at the heart of the story is the belief that God will lead them into the promised land. This journey, like the wanderings of Odysseus, will end well despite all its trials.

In a religious culture years of harsh endurance can be set within a larger hope for happiness beyond this world. But in our world there is no shared public story of the journey's end, and so no way of prizing struggle that seems to be unavailing.

For the British the blitz still provides an image of endurance and of hope deferred. George VI provided a model of modest leadership in his regular visits to communities that suffered during the bombing. The popularity of the film The King's Speech in Australia perhaps suggests a hunger for similar stories of building happiness out of wholly inadequate materials.

Failing a larger story in which to set the long aftermath of disaster, journalists naturally seek smaller stories in which disappointment and delay are turned into stories of crime and punishment. The floods and the delay in recovery from them are sheeted home to public servants, politicians, premiers and prime ministers, and they are heaped with blame.

What is lost in such a focus is encouragement to stay with the people affected by the disasters, to recognise the intensity of their feelings, and to keep larger goals in view. This is a challenge for the whole Australian community, including the media.


Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is the consulting editor of Eureka Street

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Brisbane floods, media coverage, blame, anna bligh, julia gillard



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Existing comments

Thanks Andrew, this is a message that we need to keep in mind every day we open our papers and watch TV with their first stone-throwing activities. Is it their profession to thrive on on ordure?
Ray O'Donoghue | 20 January 2011

Andy I agree. Today I see four men who lost their legs to mines up on roofs building a house for someone else who has recently suffered the same loss. At the same time they are encouraging some young Australian women to help make the thatch in solidarity! all are motivated by the Christian and Buddhist call to compassion ! Denise
denisecoghlan | 20 January 2011

An English cousin is using my stories of the Brisbane flood in her geography lessons. They are doing a unit on rivers. Some of our reporters were faulty on geography - where the rivers ran - east or west of the Great Divide. Our parish was inundated in 1974 and we used local his-stories one year at our Easter Vigil - not kosher but very effective.
Anne | 20 January 2011

Thanks Andy, a very timely reminder. The Aussie way is to get in there and help each other, so the repeated stories of selfishness and opportunism can only sour the situation. Let's rather remember and encourage the heroism, the selflessness, even government empathy and endeavours to help that will support the victims to restore their lifestyles over coming months.
Michelle Sydney | 20 January 2011

When is it legitimate for the media to report stories of discontent? There is a social contract in Australia - when there are natural disasters, governments step in to assist. This assistance can be targeted toward the individual (eg. one off payments) or the community (eg reconstruction of infrastructure). The media feed on discontent when expectations of the social contract are not being met. Governments need to manage expectations - people need to know how long it will take for their situation to be resolved and who will be responsible. This is where political leadership is vital. If the government fails deliver, people have a right to be aggrieved. The media is a legitimate mode for expressing this dissatisfaction. Governments need to be held to account for how they spend money and deliver services. Many problems are systemic, and in which case, politicians and senior public servant need to be held to account. This is how our democracy should work. Through managing expectations, governments help people come to terms with their loss. The media can support the government in do this, but it also needs to hold the government to account when it is failing to deliver.
Jaron | 20 January 2011

I could not agree more with this article, and am saddened that this aspect of 'blame reporting' has appeared, especially after their splendid and humane reporting. An enquiry...Yes! ..but mainly to discover better and more efficient ways of dealing with such disasters . There may not be an answer as to 'why', but there is an answer as to 'how' to help those left bereft, and in shock. The answer is already happening in the amazing generosity of the Australian people. Perhaps the media feels it is their responsibility to say ''it was your fault'' and thus feel they are solving a problem. Unfortunately, this type of reporting may bring a vindictiveness into the situation, which could thwart the solidarity and growth already evident. Let us go slowly in the blame game, and allow the victims the time and space needed for healing.
Bernie Introna | 20 January 2011

The best way to pay for the restoration of the flood damaged areas would be to stop the war in Afghanistan (at least Australia's part in it) and transfer the subsequent savings to the flood restoration fund. We could tell the US and other friends how we have a problem here and whilst we would like to keep helping in the war effort we just can't do that any more. Being friends, they would surely understand.
mICHAEL | 21 January 2011

Thank you ANdrew for that helpful comment on the situation. I do appreciate your articles. Jean S-D Director Poetica Christi Press
jean Sietzema-Dickson | 24 February 2011

Thanks Andrew, you have very accurately captured my current experience post flood. It is a very long slow process, where often small gains are great conquests. I have seen others fall into the blame game and it hampers their capacity to recover and move on, the role of the media only feeds destructive emotions. We attempt to take each day as it comes but now tire of trying to explain that no it isn't over for us and that life isn't back to "normal". We wait patiently for the house to dry - we have no other choice. Thank you for your compassion and understanding.

Dona Whiley | 16 March 2011


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