Covering Nature’s Impact: Correspondent Michael Morrah
October 4, 2018
Words: Michael Morrah/
Photos: John Fleming
For some people, humanitarian and sustainability issues are front of mind and inform decisions they make in their own lives. And then there are those few whose positions allow them to enact change on a larger scale. Meet Michael Morrah, news correspondent and investigative journalist. He goes to great lengths to tell the stories that are truly important. His reports on global food issues, immigration and exploitation have prompted law changes, and opened the eyes of his audience - in his home of New Zealand and beyond - to some of the key issues facing our world today.
It’s been said before that good journalism is society’s modern cultural conscience. And if my work can in any way, however small, improve the plight of someone less fortunate, inspire discussion, influence laws, or make others think differently about their own circumstances, then I’ve achieved what I set out to do.What challenges does news journalism face today?
There are many challenges, but I don’t think this means journalism is losing relevance. In an era of incessant headline-scrolling and ever-expanding social-media platforms, and where the validity of the news itself is often challenged, the need for quality journalism has never been greater. Despite these challenges, journalism remains as critical as ever to a functioning democracy, and in my opinion, we need more, not less, groundbreaking, innovative reporting. It’s about good storytelling, painstaking investigation and providing interesting, verified content.
“I developed a love of the ocean, free-diving and fishing, along with a growing respect for the sustainability of our beautiful coastlines and the preservation of our marine resources.”
I grew up in the North Island town of Whangarei, where every holiday was one spent at the beach, surfing and boating. I developed a love of the ocean, freediving and fishing, along with a growing respect for the sustainability of our beautiful coastlines and the preservation of our marine resources. My dad used to gather oysters off the rocks and dig for pipis at low tide and he taught me how to use a spear-gun. And I guess to some extent, these experiences helped shape my work and my interest in environmental issues such as fishing and waste. We have a unique and precious environment and in my opinion it’s something we must treasure and treat with respect, and ensure it’s around for generations to come.Often you will see nature at its fiercest, what can you reflect on there?
I think it’s important we never underestimate the power of nature. Over the past decade, working as Newshub’s Pacific correspondent, I’ve encountered its force: I’ve covered countless cyclones; I’ve reported on tragedies at sea, with the sinking of passenger ferries in both Tonga and Kiribati; and I’ve seen the aftermath of significant natural disasters such as the tsunami in Samoa and Super Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, which killed more than 6,000 people.
“I feel motivated to bring such stories into the public forum… it’s about standing up for people who don’t have a voice.”
The Samoa earthquake and tsunami of 2009 hit the isolated southern coast of Lalomanu - a popular resort area and tourist hotspot. Just two weeks before the tsunami hit, I had been on holiday there with family. We slept in the same thatched beach huts that a few days later would be washed away by a 10m wall of water. I’ll never forget covering that event as the area was so rapidly transformed from what it had been during my visit. The coral reefs, the bars, the hostels and beach huts - all wiped out. Just concrete foundations and piles of twisted corrugated iron remained. And worst of all, the wonderfully welcoming and hospitable people I had met and stayed with were now searching through the rubble for their missing loved ones. This was one of the first major natural disasters I had covered in the Pacific region and it quickly made me realize how vulnerable we all are.
Typhoon Haiyan in 2013 was even more devastating. The strongest and deadliest storm ever recorded, it left thousands of villages underwater, cars were tossed around like toys and I saw container ships that were forced from their moorings and hurled up against the coastline. I recall flying into Tacloban City, which was the worst-hit area. From the air, the city looked like a pile of matchsticks surrounded by murky black floodwaters. The mega storm had generated huge waves and the city was just a massive sprawling mess of debris. On the ground, aid agencies tried desperately to save lives, disease spread quickly and black body bags lined the streets. In the space of just a few hours, the lives of millions had been changed forever.
Nature has played a huge role in my job and it’s possible that with rising global temperatures, the frequency and power of such extreme weather events will only increase. We’re already witnessing this in the Pacific with the formation of increasingly powerful and slow-moving tropical storms.How far do you typically have to go for a story?
Sometimes my work takes me to far-away places. In the past couple of years I've traveled to drought-hit Northern Kenya, and twice to South Sudan, a country ravaged by inter-tribal war, famine and disease. South Sudan is a place many would consider hell on earth. Although this devastated nation is a long way from New Zealand, it’s a crisis which in my opinion doesn’t get the coverage it should. The suffering of innocent people there is extreme. I feel motivated to bring such stories into the public forum, and to represent the plight of an oppressed people.
Just getting to places like South Sudan can be extremely difficult and fraught with logistical challenges. Getting the appropriate visas to travel there as a reporter can be a drawn-out, frustrating process. Flying there from Auckland takes more than 30 hours. And once in South Sudan, there’s a myriad of even greater challenges. The security of our team is always paramount when in environments like this. In a place of starvation and entrenched warfare, the security situation can change in an instant. On our first trip to the country, an aid boat traveling up the Nile behind us was shot at by soldiers from the riverbank. While the gunfire was later described to us as probably just “warning shots”, it was a frightening reminder of the volatility of the area we were visiting.
“It’s possible that with rising global temperatures, the frequency and power of such extreme weather events will only increase.”
When covering events like Cyclone Winston in Fiji last year or Cyclone Gita in Tonga earlier this year, there are other challenges, like a lack of power, flooding and broken power lines and debris blocking key roads. Sometimes it’s impossible to reach the most important stories, because of the damage.What have been some of the toughest experiences for you personally?
In South Sudan, I was deeply affected by the observation of life-threatening starvation. We saw listless women hanging their heads in exhaustion and carrying their skeletal babies to emergency feeding sites. Doctors measuring their tiny arms, and the fear in their faces as they were placed on the scales. There was a woman whose only meal in two days had been a few leaves cooked in oil and a young boy who said to me: “It’s hard to be happy when I’m hungry.”
There was never enough food at the food distribution sites and I watched as those who didn’t have ID cards missed out on the rations. As I wrote their stories and reported these in New Zealand, I was struck by the enormous contrast between their lives and ours here in this land of plenty. Their plight resonated with our audience too. We raised more than a million dollars through our series on the crisis, money which will help improve the lives of people who have lost everything.
I’ve met people who have endured unimaginable suffering. But it’s always their ability to confront this suffering and loss which inspires me the most. In Tonga, men and women who had lost their homes during Cyclone Gita told me, “Don’t worry, we’ll build another one,” as they picked through their sodden belongings.
In Bangladesh this year, while reporting on the Rohingya refugee crisis, we heard horrific stories of brutality. Close to a million Rohingya had fled to Bangladesh after suffering a campaign of violence in their homeland of Myanmar. Yet those I spoke to, who were now trying to get by in an unknown place, without their homes, their gardens and in many cases without their family members, still had a desire to overcome their situation and to live their lives.
Women would shake my hand and smile as we sat down to do interviews. Sitting inside their tiny mud-floored bamboo huts, they were grateful we had come from New Zealand to hear their stories. They were grateful someone cared. It made me realize just how strong and unshakable the human spirit can be. Despite living in squalor and with little hope, no one I met was ready to throw in their cards and give up. On the contrary, most had dreams and aspirations for the future. Children wanted to be teachers or doctors. They had no toys, no books, but there was always laughter. In times when the human spirit is pushed to the limit, I observed resilience I never thought was possible. It was this mental toughness and a determination to recover which taught me a lot about the strength of humankind.