The Washington Post’s February 7 deep dive into the massive earthquake that hit Turkey and Syria tried to use a historical focus to provide context to contemporary events.
It tried and failed.
As I previously explained, the piece appeared in the generally excellent Today’s Worldview slot, which provides “analysis of the most important global story of the day”. The article started out well, referencing an Armenian chronicler’s account of a monstrous earthquake in the 12th century, which destroyed the city of Marash. The reader is then brought to understand – a sick feeling in the pit of their stomach – that a millennium later, on the site of Marash was Kahramanmaras, the city in southern Turkey where most buildings were reduced to rubble or badly damaged on February 6.
Thus far, history is adding immeasurably to the journalism. But what followed seems a strange way to bring historical context to current affairs. The journalist appeared to execute the rest of the piece on the basis of a fingertip search of Google archives, starting with “List of earthquakes in Turkey” on Wikipedia. From that list, he seems to have progressed to “Historical earthquakes In Turkey (before 1900)”, lower down the same web page.
The piece runs through the list, winding all the way back to 115 AD, when “a quake estimated by seismologists to have been a 7.5 magnitude devastated the ancient metropolis of Antioch and nearly killed Roman emperor Trajan, who was wintering there after a military campaign. Modern-day Antakya, the Turkish city that sits atop the ruins of Antioch, was ravaged by Monday’s tremors.”
It steps sideways to Aleppo, of which the writer says the following: “Aleppo, of course, had endured major disasters throughout its storied history.”
I recount all of the above to ask a question: what was the original purpose of this piece and has it been served? Was it simply to provide historical data on a catastrophic event, an approach that Martin Conboy, Emeritus Professor of Journalism History at the University of Sheffield calls “information-plus”?
In his 2012 book How Journalism Uses History, the professor notes that when the traditional newspaper was “the privileged and sole purveyor of the latest information” news relied on “the perpetual present”. But all that changed when “other news media forms became better communicators of the instantaneous, from radio to the Internet”. In order to create an advantage of some sort, “newspapers have been steadily recuperating the past as an important part of their communicative armoury,” the professor said.
An historical view of the fact that modern-day Turkey and Syria sit within a seismically active area is worth having and the Washington Post writer duly notes that the region hit by the quake is “at a kind of hinge point of three tectonic plates — the Arabian, Anatolian and African plates”.
But it feels a bit like lazy journalism to follow this up with a write-through of the list of earthquakes in the region, with suitable quotes from mediaeval texts.
Instead, it might have been worthwhile to ask: What, if any, are the lessons of history for those quake-prone regions? What was the narrative arc, in terms of preparation for such disasters and their management? Did those in charge get better at preparing for catastrophe? Did they learn from what went before?
That might have been more illuminating. And prescient too, considering the criticism subsequently levelled at Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government’s tardy and inadequate earthquake response. The Turkish president has grudgingly acknowledged “shortcomings” and insisted “it’s not possible to be ready for a disaster like this”.