The National and how it (finally) got the Saayidat Gas Blast story right

The money picture of the gas blast flat was captured on the second day by The National (image source: The National)

The money picture of the gas blast flat was captured on the second day by The National (image source: The National)

As an ex-journalist who nowadays spends more time in corporate communications than writing for the press, I still enjoy spending time reading what the media produce. One local story was particularly moving for me. On the 24th of March, in the evening, a gas explosion tore through the compound where me and my wife live in Abu Dhabi. My wife felt the blast, which she described as feeling like an earthquake.

As you’d expect, the incident made the news. Abu Dhabi-based English-language newspaper The National was quick out of the blocks to cover the incident with an online piece posted the same night. While the speed of the output was noteworthy, the paper got several essential facts wrong.

The first was the explosion’s timing – the incident happened at 7.30pm and emergency services were quickly on site afterwards. Secondly, and even more importantly, there were injuries despite the article’s assertion that no injuries were reported (two ambulances were on-site). And thirdly, a stock image of the building was used rather than a picture of the location following the blast (the compound is thirty minutes drive from The National’s offices).

The National's first story on the Saadiyat gas blast was quick to print but important details were wrong

The National’s first story on the Saadiyat gas blast was quick to print but important details were wrong

The piece didn’t feel as if it was put together in the right fashion, as if there wasn’t anyone on site from the paper to collect statements and talk to the authorities. It felt as if it was a desk-job. There was definitely no photographer on site to take the gold-ticket picture which would have set the stage for the piece.

However, the next day The National upped the ante in their second piece. First of all, they had the picture of the gas-blast flat which the first piece desperately needed. This money shot was supplemented by additional images. The piece confirmed the one injury. The piece was much stronger in terms of its facts as well as the emotional focus of the residents who were in the building when the blast occurred and their fears and concerns.

Was there still an issue? As far I am concerned, yes. The piece was almost a gushing testimonial to the compound’s developer TDIC. I felt as if TDIC had commissioned the piece, rather than having a piece written about them by an objective journalist (disclaimer – both TDIC and The National enjoy shared ownership, though that shouldn’t have any bearing on editorial independence). Have a look at the extract from the article and tell me what your opinion is.

Ionnais Xenakis, 27, a pilot with Etihad, lives on the fourth floor with his wife Erini, 27, a few apartments away from the flat where the explosion occurred.

“I was sitting on the sofa with my husband and baby. We heard a loud noise and a vibration,” Mrs Xenakis said.

“We weren’t sure what it was so we grabbed our baby and dog, and ran. We saw our neighbour Barry who was injured in the explosion. He told us that he turned on his light and then the apartment exploded.

“He has just moved into the building and told us that his gas wasn’t even connected yet. It was a little difficult to get out of the emergency exit because it was dark, and the emergency doors were damaged and blocked the path,” she said.

“We helped him out until the paramedics came. It was tough, but the one thing that we can all agree upon is TDIC’s swift reaction and assistance.

“They supported us like a family. They did more than we expected them to do. I was even given a stroller for my baby by one of the employees.

“They also gave me everything I needed for my baby. They were there, attending to all of our needs about 15 minutes after the explosion.”

TDIC made arrangements for the Xenakis family’s dog and cat to be taken to the Australian Veterinary Clinic in Abu Dhabi.

The third and fourth pieces by The National switched from reporting on the blast to the feelings of the residents and their concerns about the safety of their homes. The third piece was much shorter, but it was all the better for it. The fourth piece followed in a similar vein, and both included quotes from two residents (albeit the same residents). There was also the required comment from the local authorities on the steps they were taking to reassure the public – this gas blast was the second in the capital in the space of a week.

The paper saved the best for last, with a piece at the beginning of this week on the injured man himself and his own story as to what happened that night. The journalist rounded off the piece with a final comment from one of the residents.

Residents were displaced for several days. Some tenants from the blast floor are still being housed at the Anantara Eastern Mangroves by the Tourism Development and Investment Company. They are eager to find out what caused the explosion.

“It’s important to identify the error behind this because I believe it could’ve been prevented,” said L R, a neighbour of Mr Johnson. “A poor man was seriously injured because of this. We don’t need hard lessons and tragic stories to learn from our mistakes.”

The National did the right thing and got the piece right, with rolling coverage on the story and a focus on the facts as well as a human-interest element that rounded off the coverage. The journalist made amends for the initial piece which was lacking in both information and visuals to craft a number of pieces that hit the mark every time. The only thing left to say is to wish the person injured in the blast, Barry Johnson, a speedy recovery. It was a memorable night for all the wrong reasons, and I hope that he will be back on his feet and fully recovered sooner rather than later. I hope to read about Barry’s recovery in The National as soon as it happens.

I’d like to wish Barry Johnson a speedy recovery and I hope to read the news soon in The National (image source: The National)

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