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ITN Reporter Discusses Experience in Pakistan

February 3, 2006 at 12:00 AM EDT


JEFFREY BROWN: In mid-January ITN correspondent Dan Rivers and crew trekked for four days high into the mountains of Pakistan to this small village or Moori Patan. The story they shot there of earthquake survivors sick and cold, huddled it in makeshift tents in the snow aired over three nights in Great Britain.

NewsHour producers edited those reports into one eight-minute segment that aired Jan. 19.

In the days that followed, we received hundreds of e-mails and letters. There were expressions of despair over the conditions in Pakistan, inquiries as to how these people might be helped, praise for the courage of the journalists, and anger at what some saw as their unethical grandstanding amid such pain.

Here’s an excerpt of what we aired:

DAN RIVERS: The families here are living in flimsy cotton tents. This is supposed to be the warmest part of the day, but the children have no protection from the extreme conditions.

DAN RIVERS: When do they go back to school?

DAN RIVERS: Phoebe Sofia is comforting her baby sister in the wreckage of the family home. She has been ill for three weeks. She has pneumonia.

DAN RIVERS: Night brings with it bitter cold. I go back to my tent wondering how on earth these children will endure months more of this: Tiny hands trying to stay warm, bare feet numb with cold, infant minds asking why this winter is so bleak.

DAN RIVERS: The people of Moori Patan lost a quarter of their population in the earthquake, yet three months on they’re still dying from cold and from illness.

We’re about to leave the village now but these people face many more weeks of a bitterly cold winter.

JEFFREY BROWN: And Dan Rivers joins me now from London. He’s been an ITN correspondent since 2000 and has reported from several disaster zones, including Bonda Acheh, Indonesia after the 2004 tsunami.

Before we get to some of the questions raised in our letters, tell us: What was your assignment?

DAN RIVERS: Our assignment really was to try and get a more in-depth look at how people were surviving in the mountains of Pakistan after the earthquake.

The feeling was that we had done a lot of extensive coverage but most of that coverage had involved flying in for a couple of hours by helicopter, having a look around, taking some pictures and then flying out.

And what we wanted to do was actually live with these people for several days. We stayed up there for about ten days in total to really try and get a feel from what life was like day-to-day, what it was like waking up, what it was like sleeping in a tent with these people, what they ate, how they went to bed, what they were cooking and so on.

JEFFREY BROWN: There was a lot of praise for what you did. But there were also a lot of questions raised — particularly about the responsibilities you had beyond merely reporting.

One e-mailer wrote that your story “…raised many questions in my mind about the ethics of doing such stories: If the reporter and cameraman make heroic efforts to reach the earthquake victims, do they also help them in some way. Shouldn’t they be bringing supplies and food aid to them, at least just a gesture? Is TV coverage enough in such a dire situation?”

How do you respond?

DAN RIVERS: I hear what he says. It’s a question we asked ourselves as we trekked up there as well.

Firstly, I would say, you know, we are there to observe and report. And we were not an aid agency.

The idea was to go in and observe as impartially as we could the situation and get a really in-depth understanding of what was going on. We were not there to deliver aid. That is what the aid agencies are there for.

Having said that, of course, we’re human and we have emotions. And, of course, it’s difficult to stand there when there are people sick and cold around you and not do anything.

And where we could help, we did. Now one example of that is we showed a little boy who had a very bad eye infection, we filmed him. Afterwards, we did manage to get some antibiotic cream from our medical pack that we had taken up. And we gave that to him and his eyes did get better.

So that was one small case where we could help. But I think, overall, our feeling was that, you know, we are not an aid agency. We are there to report and show people what is going on.

If people think that it should be more aid there, then they need to give money to those aid agencies so they can do that job.

JEFFREY BROWN: And I think in full disclosure to our audience, as we said, we edited your pieces down into one segment and left some parts out, including the reference to leaving that medicine with the small boy.

DAN RIVERS: I was going to say also, you know, we also when we left, bought all of the families there some flour; we bought one big sack of flour per family, 37 in total. And that was something again we felt we could do. We didn’t even film that. We didn’t make a big song and dance about it at the time because we didn’t think it was appropriate.

But we did feel that that was a small something we could do personally as a parting gift to them. And that is something we did to help.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me ask you about another issue that often comes up when reporters are covering disasters: That’s the question that some people feel that it is exploitative, that are you putting yourself out there and overplaying your role, perhaps.

We got e-mails where people used the term, “exploitative,” “grandstanding,” “sensationalist.” How do you walk the line on reporting on a disaster and not exploiting the very victims of it?

DAN RIVERS: It a very tough line and it is one that gave us a lot of pause to think. I think we were trying to look at the big picture here. And the big picture for us was that we wanted to show people what the conditions were like in as an in-depth and comprehensive way as possible. The only way we felt we could get that coverage was by actually going there and experiencing it for ourselves: For example, experience, you know, camping in a tent when it is torrentially snowing and the tent collapses and it’s freezing cold; that kind of experience really informs, I think, my writing and my empathy with the people.

I hope that people generally didn’t think it was grandstanding or exploitative. And if they did, well I’m sorry for that and that wasn’t the intention. What we intended to do was to give an in-depth view, to let people understand what these people are going through.

One example of how I think the big picture that helps, we gave out a telephone number at the end of our reports for people to donate money.

Now – a fund that’s collected by something called the Disaster Emergency Committee here in Britain, a big umbrella charity — they say as a direct result of those reports they raised half a million pounds for the Pakistan earthquake appeal and had several thousand calls, more than 10,000 calls pledging money.

So I think, you know, while people might accuse us, you know of being exploitative, one I would disagree, I don’t think we were. And secondly, it raised a hell of a lot of money for charity.

I think the important thing for people to remember is there is no point, people sending blankets, knitting socks, sending out tents. That’s a completely counterproductive way of helping these people.

What needs really to be done is people need to give money to the experts. And those experts are people like UNICEF, Save the Children and other charities, NGO’s, who know exactly what the need is on the ground. And they can buy these items at a much better price than people can in America, for example. That is the way people can help is by donating money to the NGO’s.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Dan, that leads to the last question which a lot of people wondered about: Of course, why are these people still up there; why aren’t they being moved somewhere else? You were there, what were your impressions?

DAN RIVERS: Well, most people, the villagers feel it’s their home. I mean, that is where they have lived for generation after generation. They are hardy mountain people. They are used to cold weather; however, they are not used to living in tents, clearly. But I think some of them have moved out. Some of them had no choice.

The ones who were up there feel that if they leave, people will steal their land. There is a big issue with no one has any documentation for their land. You know, they live there for generation after generation. People don’t want to leave because they are worried about losing their land. And they don’t want to leave out of principles because they feel it’s their home and why should they, you know. Really they feel that they should be more help from the government, I think.

I think there has been a massive aid effort, having said that, and a lot of good work has been done but clearly there are a lot of communities up there who still, there are many people living in tents and those tents aren’t standing up to the snow.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Dan Rivers of ITN, thanks very much.

DAN RIVERS: Thank you.