Journalists share their experiences, advice for covering the Turkey-Syria earthquake

Feb 13, 2023 in Crisis Reporting
Rescuers with construction equipment at earthquake site in Northern Syria

A 7.8 magnitude earthquake that rocked Turkey and Syria on February 6 has left at least 36,000 dead, and thousands more injured. Newsrooms and journalists are on the frontlines covering the destruction, while also taking to social media to share the names of missing people and contact information of organizations able to provide assistance.

I spoke with journalists in Syria, Turkey and Lebanon about their experiences during the earthquake and in its aftermath. They discussed how to responsibly report on the disaster, fact-check circulating information, and why it’s important to collaborate in times of crisis.



Photo of the destruction in northern Syria, taken by journalist Rami Muhammad

Witnessing the disaster

Journalists in both Turkey and Syria were directly impacted by the earthquake. “I woke up terrified as I felt that the world was shaking everywhere, and I left our house with my children and wife because I thought it might be a missile strike,” said Syrian journalist Ahmed Orabi, who was with his family in Al-Atarib in Aleppo, Syria, when the earthquake hit. “The electricity went out in the house, and we spent about six hours in my car. The weather was rainy, we heard the sound of the collapsed buildings, and we smelled destruction’s smell.”

Also in Aleppo, independent Syrian journalist Haneen Al-Sayed, described the tragic night: "I was scared so I ran out into the street with my children, husband, and mother. Stones were falling over our heads due to the collapse of our house's upper floor.” 

Even as journalists were among those affected by the immediate disaster, many rushed to help in its aftermath. Rami Muhammad, another journalist from Syria, helped rescue victims trapped under the rubble. "The extent of the destruction is frightening; at first glance, you think that you have entered an area that was targeted by atomic bombs,” he said.

Ali Al Ibrahim, an  investigative journalist and co-founder of Syrian Investigative Reporting for Accountability Journalism (SIRAJ), shared how he lost relatives to the earthquake: "My uncle, his wife, and their three children remained 42 hours under the rubble until they all died.”



.The town of Bisnia in the countryside of Idlib, Syira, taken by the journalist Ahmed Orabi

Media services and humanitarian stories

In Syria, which has received little international aid following the earthquake, citizens have helped search for people amid hundreds of collapsed buildings, said Khalil Ashawi, a Reuters photographer and co-founder of Frontline in Focus. Ashawi’s own  parents were trapped under the rubble in Antakya, Turkey, for two days before they were rescued alive. 

After ensuring that his team members, based in Syria, were safe, Ashawi had them document the earthquake with aerial photos and human-centered stories. With internet and electricity largely cut off inside Syria, others on the team traveled to the country’s border to upload the content on the website and social media.

Hadil Arja, the founder of Tiny Hand and fellow co-founder of Frontline in Focus, advised journalists to do their best to remain professional as they report on the traumatic aftermath. “Journalists in Syria and Turkey should have the willpower and determination to report events and facts with extreme professionalism and objectivity,” she said. “[They] should report people’s suffering and write humanitarian stories to transfer the voices of the affected.”



.The damage to the car of journalist Haneen Al-Sayed

Verifying information

Misinformation proliferates during natural disasters, warned Joyce Hanna, a fact-checker with AFP. "Fake news promoters take advantage of disasters which have many shocking human photos, such as a child crying after losing his family and scenes of children under rubble,” she said. “Rumor-mongers repost old, terrifying videos that have been taken out of context to entice users to share them on social media.”

Since the earthquake, Hanna’s team has used techniques such as reverse image search tools and cutting videos into still scenes to check whether media published on the internet is recent or old content from past disasters. 

“We also rely on our journalistic experience such as adding keywords to verify information, and limit the search to a specific time period, in addition to contacting our correspondents worldwide to ensure the authenticity of news and images,” Hanna said. “Don’t publish photos and videos during disasters and earthquakes until you verify their credibility, to prevent the spread of rumors.”



Photo by Haneen Al-Sayed

Communicating facts and figures

Mostapha Raad, a journalist with Scientific American, has been covering the aftershocks felt by Lebanese people in the earthquake’s aftermath. “I’ve focused on the magnitude of the earthquake and its impact on Lebanon and neighboring countries,” said Raad. “I share simplified scientific information on my Facebook page, such as seismic faults in Lebanese territory, to reassure citizens and [calm fears]. I also tell them what they should do to protect themselves.”

Raad advised journalists to refer to official sources for accurate figures on natural disasters, to verify the accounts of experts before resharing tweets or posts by them on social media, and to seek guidance from scientists, experts and research centers that specialize in earthquakes and natural disasters. 

He also cautioned to keep in mind that misinformation can cause harm to people suffering from the disaster, and to ensure that any numbers you gather match data presented by other sources. 



Photo by Khalil Ashawi

Practical tips for reporting on the earthquake

Syrian journalist and trainer Mais Katt offered the following advice for journalists reporting on natural disasters

  • Prioritize your safety; this is more important than being the first to get a scoop. 
  • Avoid going to high-risk areas and follow safety rules recommended by local authorities and security.
  • Uphold journalistic ethics and professional standards when covering disasters. 
  • Adhere to guidelines around publishing photos of children, and respect the privacy of impacted families. 
  • Follow professional guidelines when interviewing people who may be experiencing trauma. 
  • Verify information before publishing it, as crises are a breeding ground for misinformation.

Main image by Karem Keelia, a collaborator with Frontline in Focus. All photos published with permission from the authors. 

This article was originally published on IJNet Arabic.