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Should the media stop using the term 'natural disaster'?

Floods in Libya and Greece, fires in Australia or earthquakes in Morocco. Disasters are on the rise, partly because climate change is affecting the frequency and intensity of some of them. The media often use the term 'natural disaster' to describe them, something a team of crisis and disaster specialists is trying to change.

11/10/2023 - 09:30 CEST

The picture shows the destruction in Derna, Libya, after the passage of storm Daniel and the subsequent flood. EFE/EPA/STRINGER.

The term 'natural disaster' "ignores the reality that vulnerability must exist before a crisis emerges," explained University College London (UK) researcher Ilan Kelman in an article published in The Conversation. "The failure of governments to adequately prepare people for these hazards is one of the roots of disaster. No matter how severe an event, disaster can be avoided," said Kelman, who specialises in such phenomena. 

For this reason, Kevin Blanchard, Lead Researcher at DRR Dynamics, started the campaign #NoNaturalDisasters, with which he is trying to stop the media from adding 'natural' to their coverage.

Why is the language used when covering tragedies such as earthquakes and floods important?

Speaking to SMC España, Blanchard points out that the way disasters are presented in the media "affects public perception of the risk associated with them" and therefore considers it essential that the terminology used in reporting disasters is appropriate. 

"Coverage of these events is vital because it shapes the public's perception of how these disasters are related to issues such as climate change, urbanisation, environmental degradation and global population growth," says the scientist, who specialises in disaster risk reduction and climate change. 

Loris De Nardi, a researcher at the Bernardo O'Higgins University (Chile), considers the term 'natural disaster' to be "inaccurate and simplistic", which is why he defends the importance of a more precise terminology. "Language is a powerful tool that shapes our perception of the world", and its correct use "reflects reality and promotes a more accurate and complete understanding of the nature of disasters", De Nardi, who is a senior researcher at the GERIDE network (Políticas públicas de gestión del riesgo de desastres en Latinoamérica), tells SMC España.

"The term 'natural disaster' can lead to the belief that they are inevitable and beyond our control, which diminishes the willingness to take action to prevent them or mitigate their impacts. By changing the language, we can inspire greater awareness and action"

Loris De Nardi

Experts such as De Nardi believe that a change in the use of language can have great effects. For example: helping to recognise human responsibility in these events, raising public awareness and education, and encouraging action to reduce disaster risks. In short: "Challenging an entrenched paradigm that minimises the importance of our actions in creating risk". 

"Changing our terminology is a crucial step in fostering a more accurate understanding of the relationship between human activity and disasters, and in spurring the action needed to address the climate and environmental challenges we face today," notes De Nardi. "It's a small change of words with a big impact on our ability to deal with a safer and more sustainable future," he adds. 

According to the researcher, "words matter because they influence the way society perceives and responds to problems". "The term 'natural disaster' can lead to the belief that these events are inevitable and beyond our control, which diminishes the willingness to take action to prevent them or mitigate their impacts. By changing the language, we can inspire greater awareness and action," he stresses. 

In the same vein, "recognising that disasters are the result of poor human decisions in terms of urban planning, development, resource management and climate change is essential to take responsibility for preventing future disasters". According to De Nardi, inappropriate terminology obscures this reality.

What terms are more appropriate when reporting these events?

De Nardi considers the term 'socio-natural disaster' to be more appropriate, but also others such as 'disaster', 'calamity' and 'tragedy', without the 'natural' tag.  

The #NoNaturalDisasters campaign recommends 'disaster'. "The context of your article, blog, video or tweet you are writing should clearly show the origins of the danger," they say on their website, which has a guide in many languages, including Spanish, with recommendations for journalists covering this type of information.

But the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) continue to use the term 'natural disaster' in their reports and statements. Doesn't that mean that its use is correct?

Blanchard explains that the ultimate goal of his campaign is for all organisations, "especially those working with disasters", to stop using the term 'natural' to refer to them, but he realises that this will not be an easy task. Still, he argues that "the way an organisation chooses to label disasters does not change that, in the end, the hazard only became a disaster because of human failures".

"The way an organisation chooses to label disasters does not change the fact that, in the end, the hazard only became a disaster because of human failure"

Kevin Blanchard

De Nardi agrees: although these organisations still resort to the 'natural' tag "it should not be seen as a justification for its use".

But aren't these tragedies inevitable?

The researchers believe that it is the hazards that are natural and beyond our control - the earthquake itself or a volcanic eruption - but that the disasters they cause can be controlled and even prevented.  

"The point at which a hazard interacts with humans and causes loss of life, economic damage and injuries, and becomes a disaster, is entirely within our control," Blanchard stresses. For example, by improving early warning systems, strengthening infrastructure and improving the protection of those who are most vulnerable to such events.

So isn't it a good idea to blame the losses on nature or 'divine will' (according to believers)? 

Blanchard says this not only "oversimplifies the complex origins and compounding factors of disasters", but "absolves powerful decision-makers of responsibility for allowing or forcing people to live in vulnerable conditions". In other words, these narratives perpetuate the view that "disasters are inevitable and unpredictable, rather than the result of a confluence of factors that could be mitigated or prevented". 

This is something that University of Reading (UK) researcher Liz Stephens mentioned after the 2022 floods in Pakistan: "We need to ask why these floods are having a similar impact to those of 2010", when the science of forecasting "has improved considerably" since then. 

The problem, as Stephens herself pointed out, is that "early warnings need to reach the communities that are most at risk" so that they can flee, something that did not happen in Pakistan. History repeated itself in Libya: according to the WMO, most of the deaths caused by the 2023 floods could have been avoided if the country had issued warnings. 

"Emergency management forces might have been able to carry out the assessment of people and we could have avoided most of the human casualties," the organisation's director, Petteri Taalas, told AFP.

What should disaster coverage focus on?

For Blanchard, the misuse of the term 'natural disaster' "strips disaster stories of their social, political, environmental and economic context, in which injustice is pervasive". As a result, it can "confuse the public" and "miss opportunities for transformative change". Journalists must therefore cover stories holistically, "ensuring that underlying systemic vulnerabilities and injustices are highlighted, and that decision-makers are held accountable".

Anything else to consider?

De Nardi stresses the importance of the "historical memory" of affected communities in covering such disasters. He believes that its absence "is one of the main causes of socio-natural disasters".  

He argues for the need to build a "solid" historical memory to make up for the "inaccuracies of collective memory" and "play a crucial role in the prevention and mitigation of future events". 

Learning from past lessons, raising awareness and educating, improving preparedness, reducing complacency and pointing the finger at those responsible are some of the factors De Nardi pointed out that the media can help with in their coverage.

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