The weekslong effort to locate and rescue a dozen boys and their soccer coach from a flooded cave in the far north of Thailand has helped to illuminate any number of qualities present in different groups of human beings. Children are extremely resilient, Thais are outrageously hospitable, rescue divers are unbelievably brave, and journalists are desperate to get an edge.
Hundreds of media personnel are swarming around one of the biggest stories of the year. Even as the mission is winding down, foreign correspondents are arriving on site in search of an angle.
And everything has been explored.
Visits to the soccer pitch where the boys played, to the schools they attend, to a shop where one of them bought lollies have made headlines. But as the angles dry up, reporters become increasingly desperate, and some turn into hyenas, stopping at every carcass and feasting on whatever they can. BBC, NBC, ABC, The LA Times, The New York Times, the Times of London — seemingly every major media outlet from around the world is scrambling to put a new spin on a story that has captivated the world for more than two weeks.
And it’s not just news reporters. Authors and documentary filmmakers have also turned up, feeding on the colour and the details that will fill out their longer-term projects and put some perspective on an event that has been churned out in sound bites, tweets, live blogs and live crosses — most of them accurate but plenty of them not.
In the digital age, the race to be on top of the story often makes truth a casualty, as was seen on night one of the rescue mission when Reuters, one of the world’s most trusted news wires, ran a story stating that six boys had been rescued from the cave.
They were first. But they were wrong.
“In a fast-moving situation, we published a story based on information from a senior member of the rescue operation’s medical team. The story was corrected as soon as we established that the official we had spoken to had made a mistake,” came a response from Reuters PR office.
A Thai reporter had the byline on the incorrect story, meaning that language barriers were not blame in this case. Nevertheless, the issue of using translators and fixers has also been a point of interest here in Mae Sai, some 900 km north of Bangkok.
In short, supply could never meet demand. And some of the world’s biggest television networks swallowed up much of the market, putting numerous bilingual locals “on standby” at rates higher than newspapers can afford. Plenty of them went to waste, not called into action.
At press conference time, foreign reporters crowded around translators, in some cases to the obvious chagrin of the party footing the bill. Fixated on every word coming from their vital reporting partner, however, those getting jibbed were unable to do much to flick away the leeches. (Full disclosure: I performed both roles — leech and host — during the madness.)
Respect for locals not working in the media went out the gate, too, in some circumstances. After being stationed near the mouth of the cave since the boys went missing, the media maelstrom was picked up and dumped a few kilometers down the road as the rescue mission kicked off.
This was probably always going to happen. But a local producer with ties to authorities told Crikey that both the rescue divers and families of the missing boys had made numerous complaints to authorities about being endlessly harassed by reporters.
Additionally, the coordinator of the rescue mission, a well-respected former provincial governor, unleashed a tirade on the media just hours after the first four boys took their first breaths of fresh air — reminding them that flying drones anywhere near the rescue site was illegal and claiming that media had attempted to hack into the rescue team’s radio communications.
On day three, the Guardian carried a tweet on its live blog saying that a foreign reporter had been detained for flying a drone over the caves. A pair of journalists speaking to Crikey identified the man as their compatriot and competitor, Wojciech Bojanowski, who they said was Poland’s reigning journalist of the year.
“Obviously, its wrong,” one of them said, referring to the act of defiance — a serious risk in a nation where application of the law can be both arbitrary and overly harsh. “But imagine, it could have been brilliant — footage of the boys coming out of the cave.”