For today's Coffee Break Course, I asked my Poynter colleague Al Tompkins for some tips on covering Hurricane Matthew. His recommendations fall into several categories.

Understand these three numbers

  • Barometric pressure. The lower the number, the stronger the storm.
  • Distance. Nautical miles are less than land miles.
  • Speed. Storm speed is typically measured in knots, a nautical mile per hour, as compared with a mile per hour.

Be aware of two kinds of damage

  • Wind. After the damage caused by Hurricane Andrew in 1993, building codes in Florida were changed to make roofs and mobile homes safer.  You might see less wind damage because of the number of newer buildings.
  • Storm surge. Wind damage typically is covered by homeowners' insurance, but water damage isn't. Flood insurance is offered through the National Flood Insurance Program run by FEMA and is capped. You'll see stories of people who don't have insurance to replace what was damaged by water.

Covering the storm

  • Don't race out to cover the storm if you are not prepared. You can put yourself, and others, at risk. There are plenty of other ways to tell good stories.
  • Be global. Other places have been affected by the storm. People in Haiti are still rebuilding from the 2010 earthquake, and many are still homeless. Ask relief agencies and politicians about efforts there.
  • Check the charities. Before you report on any relief work, check an organization's track record. (You can see 990s on Guidestar.) Find out where their money has gone in the past and if they do what they said they would do.
  • Be skeptical of user-submitted photos. Check the meta-data or do a reverse image search through TinEye, RevEye (a Chrome add-on) or Google.
  • Choose your words carefully. Avoid subjective adjectives such as "monster" or "storm of the century." Be factual and inform your audience with objective nouns.
  • Think social first. Online is a great way to connect with your audience before the storm hits. Then they can find you while the power is out. Be active now with social channels and blogs. Point your viewers to tools that can help them stay in touch with one another, too, such as Facebook’s Safety Check.
Other resources

Looking for more reporting techniques? Sign up for How to Cover Big News as It Breaks, a webinar replay with Christal Hayes at Poynter NewsU.

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