Nepal Earthquakes: How to Write About a Tragedy

For a writer or journalist, it’s never an easy task to report tragedy, let alone bearing witness to millions suffering from a large-scale tragedy like the Nepal earthquake. Travel writer Prathap shares his tips on how to stay respectful of your subjects and take care of yourself.

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In an essay on reporting tragedies, Al Tompkins of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies says, “Journalists’ symptoms of traumatic stress are remarkably similar to those of police officers and fire-fighters..., yet journalists typically receive little support after they file their stories.”

Tread carefully so that neither your subject nor you are damaged in the process.

Approaching Your Subject

While writing about a tragedy, it’s particularly delicate to approach a survivor and ask them to relive a traumatic experience they’ve just lived through.

Take extra care. Treat them with dignity, but at the same time show empathy for their circumstances.

Avoid asking questions related to their close family members/relatives who may have perished in the tragedy, unless they are forthcoming about it.

Sometimes, even an apology for somebody’s loss is not good enough to contain their grief.

Respect Local Customs

Always respect local customs while trying to establish contact with someone involved in a tragedy.

In Nepal, sometimes Hindu religious rules necessitate that mourners (especially women) not talk to strangers.

Family members will get protective of the victim during such circumstances. In such cases, it’s only ethical to respect their privacy and wait it out.

Report Accurately on Crucial Details

Don’t miss any crucial and accurate details while writing the story – this includes facts, names, and other statistics. Always check back with the survivors to re-verify names and facts.

Take care though to not be not too explicit with any disturbing details while portraying an incident like the Nepal earthquake.

Avoid clichés used to describe one’s death or state of mind.

Understand that you’re a reporter, but your job is not bigger than the emergency workers at the scene. Never let your presence negatively affect the rescue operations in any way.

Give Yourself a Break

Being consistently exposed to tragedies, and the victims affected by it, while covering a story can be stressful.

Understand the need to give yourself a break from such distressing situations.

The tremendous nature of this responsibility can break you down. In such cases, distract yourself from the task at hand.

Stay calm when shaken with gory details narrated by your subject. It’s also okay to breakdown when met with tragic stories – that only shows that you are human too.

Lastly, understand the risk you are taking by being in a fragile environment like in an earthquake-prone area. It’s important to stay alert.

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