As a foreign correspondent, John Schidlovsky reported from Beijing, Beirut, Cairo and New Delhi, among other consequential capitals. As founding director of the International Reporting Project (IRP) he’s led delegations of journalists on 26 trips, mostly to underdeveloped — and underreported-on — countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

But Schidlovsky had never experienced anything like the earthquake in Nepal, which hit April 25.

“It seemed to go on and on without ending, and the room just seemed to be swaying and going in circles,” said Schidlovsky, who had arrived in advance of an IRP trip to Nepal. Speaking with his feet now firmly planted back home in Washington, D.C., Schidlovsky recalled that “after what seemed like an eternity — 80 seconds — that rumbling and shaking and bobbing and weaving just stopped.”

But journalism was just getting started. And as happens with other natural and man-made disasters, the reporting rallied responses from governments and citizens worldwide. Two reporters on the IRP trip also arrived early and sprang into action after that fateful 80 seconds. They were among the first witnesses to the world about the extent of the devastation.

The IRP agenda had planned to particularly focus on Nepalese health and development issues, but because key officials were involved in crisis management, the program was scrapped. But “being journalists,” Schidlovsky said, most of the nine who had not yet arrived soon arrived and “did some fantastic reporting.”

Fantastic reporting matters in natural disasters. It alerts the world about immediate needs. Equally important, monitoring the post-disaster aftermath can keep a light on long-term needs and the afflicted nation’s governmental performance, as well as whether international pledges of aid are actually delivered.

“The role of media in bringing the nature of the disaster to the awareness of the public is absolutely critical,” said Allen Clark, a senior fellow at the East-West Center and an expert on disaster management and humanitarian assistance programs. “It provides the backdrop against which a lot of the aid and other things are allocated. It also has a positive effect on identifying the bottlenecks in the process and bringing them to light.”

These bottlenecks have strangled some of the immediate relief efforts and Clark worries about an unfolding “triple storm” — the earthquake, June monsoons and the ongoing challenges with Nepal’s government, whose disaster-management system is limited by funding and manpower, as well as a lack of proactive support before the earthquake.

“Nepal is a very poor country, with a lot of pressing needs, with a lot of political problems,” said James Moriarty, who was U.S. ambassador to the country from 2004 to 2007. Moriarty described a “race against time,” adding that while Nepal’s army is a “pretty well-organized institution, you can’t create other institutions that don’t exist on the fly.”

“The government will be under a lot of pressure to reform,” Moriarty noted. “There is a big crisis of confidence and not a whole reservoir in the political class to address it effectively.”

Kathmandu’s capacity to handle the Himalayan nation’s already dire state was among the issues the IRP fellows had planned to examine. Those issues are just underscored even more by the disaster, Schidlovsky said.

Beyond politics, reporting on governance of countries is an IRP objective. Since 2000, more than 500 journalists from numerous news organizations in various media disciplines (including me, one former and two current colleagues) have taken IRP trips or individually reported from 110 nations as IRP fellows. Sure, they chronicle the chronic problems developing nations face, but they also report on potential solutions. “We’ve been doing this for years,” Schidlovsky said. “We continue to believe that there’s no replacement for getting out into the field, and we pride ourselves on getting to areas that don’t get a lot of coverage.”

Lack of coverage is not Nepal’s problem right now. And some might wonder about reporters rushing in to witness a nation’s agony. But it would be worse if the earthquake were eclipsed by other crises dominating the headlines. Rescue efforts are largely over. Recovery efforts are essential to avoid more lives lost beyond the over 7,500 already reported dead. “The role of the media is absolutely vital,” Clark emphasized.

Indeed, “reporters help generate awareness of the extent of the disaster, and that helped motivate people to respond with donations,” said Schidlovsky. “So that’s the role journalists can play: By simply reporting and informing the public of the extent of the need, and then it’s up to other agencies, both government and nongovernment, to respond.”

Journalists would be the first to say they aren’t “first responders.” But their work, often in difficult, if not dangerous, conditions, helps first responders, as well as those tasked with the long, hard slog of recovery.

 

John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.