The Thai floods and the geographics of perception – Part 1: No water in the Bangkok you’re thinking of!
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The Thai floods and the geographics of perception – Part 1: No water in the Bangkok you’re thinking of!

By Saksith Saiyasombut


The view on Pinklao district from an elevated road on the Western side of the Chao Praya river, one day after the tides reached on all-time high, fully flooding the district on October 30, 2011 (Photo by Saksith Saiyasombut)

Thailand is currently suffering the what has been often billed as the worst floods “in decades”. And looking at the immense inundated areas, the not yet foreseeable damage and the human suffering with millions of people being affected by this force of nature, it surely is a sobering sight.

Even though the annual flood season started as early as August in the North of the country, most of the attention, by both foreigners and Thais, increased when the water came slowly creeping towards Bangkok in October. That was the moment when Bangkokians started to freak out, started to barricade their shops and homes with sandbags and concrete walls and started to stockpile drinking water.

Some blame the break-neck speed and the inaccurate and hyperbolic nature of social media, while some see the international media at fault for the blowing the disaster out of proportion at the wrong times and places, as Bangkok-based blogger Greg Jorgensen writes:

Western media has said “Biblical” floods will hit Bangkok; that the whole city was evacuating; and that the airport is closed. They neglected to mention that an airport was closed – Don Meuang, the old one serving only domestic flights, which were easily routed to the main Suvarnabhumi Airport.

A Flood of Information in a Dry City“, by Greg Jorgensen, Greg to Differ, October 28, 2011

And then there’s this incident of over-dramatization as described by The Christian Science Monitor:

One recent morning a British television station’s local correspondent stood knee-deep in water speaking to the camera. A few yards away, several Thais stood, unmoving, on a small embankment of sandbags, gazing pensively at their feet. These locals, the foreign reporter explained, were faced with a daunting challenge: whether they should dare to cross to the other side of a small alley covered in water.

Off camera, boys and girls splashed about, laughing and smiling, in the flood, while other locals, wearing plastic flip-flops or rubber wading boots, went about their business. Once the foreign journalist had said his piece on camera, he turned to the Thais standing on the small sandbags and thanked them for their cooperation.

Thailand floods: When journalists embellish visuals“, Christian Science Monitor, November 8, 2011

There are many reasons to be critical towards the international coverage of the floods and there are also many reasons why many people in this city react the way they did, even if some of them had no reason to whatsoever.

In this two-part series, I attempt to explain which ones these are and how they could occur. While this does not excuse the gross errors by some in reporting this natural disaster, this might help at least show where these mistakes are made. In part one today, we look behind the process of news-gathering and where and why the real story can get lost between Thailand and the rest of the world. In part two tomorrow, we explore the roots of the fear among Bangkokians before and during the floods.

The chainof-command of news or: When details fall through on the long way back

When the floods reached Bangkok’s old airport Don Muang in the North of the city, also doubling as the government’s flood relief center and an evacuation center, many news outlets ran headlines á la “Floods reach Bangkok airport, force evacuations” – most people not familiar with the city will of course think that the main airport Suvarnabhumi was under water, which caused a lot of confused tourists – to say the least.

But how could that sloppy work happen? Generally speaking, news organizations pull their information from a lot of sources which can be boiled down to these processes: the correspondents and local staff on location, who report back to foreign desk editors or producers at their respective headquarters, who then also gather more information from other sources, such as news agencies.

Depending on the size of the organizations, the chain-of-command’s length between the correspondent and the published/aired product varies – in other terms: the more people not on location work on the story, the more details get lost in order to make it as mass-compatible, attention-grabbing as possible.

Today’s headlines are dictated by SEO (search engine optimization), meaning that they have to be easily search-able and easily digestible – thus many editors back outside of Thailand resort to the simplified headline that “Bangkok Airport Flooded“, instead to writing that an airport was hit. Some outlets, like the BBC, have quickly changed their headlines to specify which one it was, once it was clear what confusion it caused.

Sometimes it is a real struggle to explain the foreign desk editors the situation, when it doesn’t match with certain expectations, which brings us to…

Location, location, location: where Bangkok begins and ends for the media

The biggest news story for many was the imminent threat of the capital being inundated and the romantic description “Venice of the East” getting a literal and ironic twist. Why? It is all a matter of geographical perception by both the media and the Bangkokians themselves. For the media it is of course quite a visually enticing motive: a metropolis under water, streets becoming rivers, once vivid life on the street coming to a screeching halt – you get the gist.

Countless international media organizations have some sort of outpost (from full-equipped correspondent bureaus to a local freelance journalist regularly writing for a newspaper) for the whole of Southeast Asia. This story happens right in front of their doorstep (even nearer were last year’s Red Shirt Protests, which literally took place next to the building that houses the Bangkok bureaus of most international news channels) – TV crews and reporters didn’t have to travel far to witness a natural disaster.

The at times high intensity and frequency also highlights a sad truth in the media business: in the times of increasing budget cuts and layoffs, more and more foreign news bureaus have to justify their existence – and this story is a good opportunity to show that something is happening (apart from the annual political turmoil or the ubiquitous, whacky off-beat reports). The news organizations have different standards for the productivity of their regional outposts, but generally Thailand is neither a country that constantly delivers good or bad news over the course of a year.

That is, if said organization actually has a Bangkok bureau. Ever since last year’s nationalistic witch-hunt against CNN correspondent Dan Rivers, the US news network does not have a regular reporter in this town. This role is then filled by somebody from one of their other Asian bureaus – a process that is called ‘parachute journalism‘. If there this ‘parachuted’ reporter has no local colleagues (e.g. a producer) to help him/her out, the obvious downsides such as over-simplification and cliché reporting can occur.

On the other hand is the daily routine of working with the staff (editors and producers) back ‘home’ – and if one happens to get a bad one, who refuses to listen to the judgment of the correspondent on location, it can become a tiring process to explain what is really going on here. Much of the disagreements stems from the the necessity to explain how big Bangkok actually is. The greater Bangkok Metropolitan Area is over 7700 km², larger than Shanghai for example.

Many colleagues, who wish to remain unnamed, have told that there were a lot of instances where the foreign desk editors or producers were not interested to give the floods more coverage, unless “central Bangkok is flooded – not North, South, West or East!” or where the office abroad prematurely cried wolf, due to erroneous reports made by others (see above). It is a cynical truth that the novelty of central Bangkok with all its temples, shopping malls and high-rise buildings, possibly getting inundated is more news-‘worthy’ than to report on the provinces outside the capital suffering the same (if not worse) fate on a yearly over and over again.

Tomorrow in part two: When good news is not good enough and why were those most anxious, who were affected the least.

Saksith Saiyasombut is a Thai blogger and journalist currently based in Bangkok, Thailand. He can be followed on Twitter @Saksith and now also on his public Facebook page here.