Young Journalists in Sri Lanka Excel in Reporting on Deadly Landslides

Tropical Storm Roanu hit Sri Lanka in May 2016, causing catastrophic landslides that buried hundreds and displaced thousands in the Aranayake area in the Kegalle district. This was the worst natural disaster since the 2004 tsunami.

Impact of deadly landslides (Photo credit: Amantha Perera)

Just 48 hours after the disaster, Internews brought together a team of four journalists from its One Sri Lanka program to visit the disaster zone and report on the situation, as there was limited and contradictory information flowing out of the affected area. The team, led by trainer and mentor Amantha Perera, was the first to break the news on the enormity of the disaster to the rest of the country.

The journalists found a chaotic situation at the site due to hundreds of “disaster tourists” who had come to take photos.

“There were other journalists who too had come on a road trip, they were taking selfies, posting pictures on social media, laughing loud, conducting insensitive interviews,” says Perera.

The team of Internews journalists took advice from rescue crews to make their way safely to the disaster site and drew on their training to conduct sensitive interviews with survivors.

“Especially with one family, near a house that had been buried half way up the mountain,” said Perera. “The son who had survived was visibly shaken and so were his aunts and cousins who had come to the site. Other media, especially two TV crews, both from local channels were making their level best to get the family to cry and to get them in to prime position, next to a shrine room, to film.”

Internews trainee Tharindu Iranga went back to the site repeatedly and spent hours each day with the survivors. He was the first to correct the name of the mountain which was being referred to as Samasara when the name in fact was Ramasara.

It was evident the trainees were putting into action what they had learnt during their training sessions. Perera overheard one of the Internews trainees say, “No, no, Shihar said that you can’t report with just one source.” This was in relation to the number of missing.

During the training workshops, Reuters correspondent and Internews trainer Shihar Aneez had drummed into the young journalists that at least two sources were needed when referencing information such as numbers missing or killed. This resulted in articles produced by the Internews team having better data about the number of affected people. The team cited government figures, figures from other agencies, in particular the Sri Lanka Red Cross which had teams on the ground even before government rescuers had arrived, and more importantly inputs from survivors on the ground and local officials.

On another occasion Perera overheard, “…but Eranga said you should not just take pictures of dead bodies, you should be respectful, think about private space. Do we need such pictures to tell this story?”

This was based on advice given by trainer Eranga Jayawardena from the Associated Press — it resulted in photos produced by the journalists that told the story but were not macabre.

“Seeing the behavior of some of the so-called ‘professional journalists’ who were at this disaster site, I was glad that I traveled with an inexperienced lot,” said Perera. “In this case, the less experienced reporters produced better journalism.”

Following up on the Disaster

One month after the devastating landslide, Internews supported a multi-ethnic reporting team to re-visit the flood-affected town of Aranayake. The team spent two days in June investigating what progress had been made and reporting on the long term needs of the affected people, which included getting land for over 800 families who lived in the high-risk zone. The team of four, again led by Amantha Perera, included three members of the original field reporting team.

It was the reporting by this team, that raised awareness about the lack of safe land in the hilly area for families through the national media. This reporting revealed that many people did not know they were living in high risk areas and were unaware of who to contact or what to do. The stories focused on the availability of safe land where the families who were currently living in high risk areas could be relocated.

A monkey skull positioned half way up the massive landslide site (Photo: Amantha Perera)

Prior to the field trip, the team had conducted background reporting, research, and interviews with key people based in Colombo, including the Minister responsible for the Disaster Management Center. The young journalists also set up interviews with local officials and with local people. It was evident that they had built good relationships with the locals who appreciated what they were doing. During the field trip, the team discovered that some locals had newspaper clippings of the articles written by them when they were there in May.

The reports produced by the journalists were published in two Sinhala language newspapers, one English language newspaper and two Tamil language newspapers. The English language story can be found here:

As for covering the disaster with this group of novice journalists, Perera said, “I would do it all over again.”

Sam de Silva is Internews’ Country Director for Sri Lanka, where Internews supports the production of quality content that effectively opens space for discussion and reflects the diversity of the community. Internews also supports humanitarian communications in other crisis situations, such as the 2015 earthquake in Nepal.