A natural disaster in the United States means wall-to-wall news coverage, with reporters and photographers laboring to chronicle a crisis under harrowing circumstances, giving the public both a bird’s-eye view as events unfold and intimate snapshots of where the needs are greatest.
Hurricane Harvey has made broadcast journalists covering the Category 4 storm and its devastating aftermath some of the most recognizable figures in American homes this week. Inevitably, as with coverage of any catastrophe that’s close to home, the media have come in for a raft of criticism over how they’re doing their jobs — no matter how they do it.
As cable and local TV rolls hour after hour of adrenaline-pumping escapes and heartbreaking scenes of devastation, critics have pounced on coverage as intrusive, voyeuristic and ratings-driven. But imagine for a moment if reporters ignored the 500-year flooding that has submerged parts of the country’s fourth-most populous city, killed a few dozen people thus far, and is expected to wreak tens of billions of dollars in damage and affect one-third of U.S. oil refining capacity. The press would be savaged for callous disregard for fellow Americans — almost certainly by President Trump himself, who last week called the press “sick people” who “don’t like our country.”
The reality is that disaster coverage is among the purest forms of public service journalism. To accuse the media of commercial motivations in Hurricane Harvey coverage is to profoundly misunderstand the business model. Like wars, famines and epidemics, natural disaster coverage is incredibly expensive because of resources that must be mobilized without notice. Entire staffs are put on round-the-clock overtime shifts at newspapers, news agencies and broadcast stations that blow out commercials for tragedies at home, losing ad income. There’s the high cost of last-minute travel, rental of flood-worthy vehicles, boats and sometimes helicopters, not to mention satellite trucks when needed.
“For months, these local newsrooms will spend enormous amounts of money covering this disaster. And they’re not being rewarded with Super Bowl-sized audiences because the market has spotty electrical service and so many people are displaced,” said Al Tompkins, Poynter’s senior faculty for broadcast. “Nobody in their right mind thinks extended coverage is a money maker…The reason to do this superhuman effort is because it is public service, vital journalism.”
The Houston Chronicle (like the Times-Picayune during Hurricane Katrina) has mobilized its full staff, which is working around the clock to cover the crisis even as employees are personally affected by the floods. The Chronicle is distributing free papers by the thousands at shelters and beyond, greeted by cheers as victims get a lifeline to the news, much as Katrina evacuees in shelters cried when they were given copies of the Times-Picayune.
There are numerous examples — both here and abroad — during storms, earthquakes, wars and terrorist attacks, where news coverage, especially in remote areas, informed authorities of crucial events as they happen, spurring rescues and relief and prompting an outpouring of public and private aid and support.
So why are reporters accused of swarming victims like vultures, insensitive to their suffering?
Take the case of CNN reporter Rosa Flores, whose live interview in a Houston shelter with a woman named Danielle who had just arrived at the shelter went painfully awry. Flores appeared to have asked their permission for an interview, and the conversation began normally enough; Flores put her hand on the woman’s shoulder and asked sympathetically how she was rescued. “We had been there like five days with no food and no lights and nobody came, nobody came,” the woman recounted, getting more upset as she recalled feeding her kids by walking “through four feet of water to go get them food.” Emotionally overwrought, the woman snapped, turning her rage and frustration on the reporter: “Y’all sitting here, y’all trying to interview people during their worst times.”
Flores tried to mollify her, softly saying, “Sorry,” but Danielle wasn’t done. “Like, people are really breaking down, and y’all sitting here with cameras and microphones trying to ask us, ‘What the f— is wrong with us?’”
Flores apologized repeatedly, but Danielle continued her tirade. “You’re really trying to understand with the microphone still in my face? With me shivering cold, with my kids wet, and you still putting a microphone in my face!” The interview mercifully ended when CNN anchor Jim Acosta broke in: “It sounds like you’ve got a very upset family there. We’re going to take a break from that.” Acosta later called it a “very human moment” and told Flores, “If you see that nice lady again, please give her our best and tell her that we're thinking about her, and thanks for sharing that with us.”
White House counselor Kellyanne Conway jumped on the chance to browbeat CNN, a frequent target of the president’s ire. (She later praised Trump favorite Fox News for its interviews with victims).
— Kellyanne Conway (@KellyannePolls) August 29, 2017
Was CNN ghoulishly exploiting suffering for ratings? I don’t think so. Flores didn’t ambush the woman; Danielle was standing by to be interviewed. It would have been rude to pull away the microphone while being berated, yet the woman berated Flores more for keeping the mic out. It was no-win situation.
Could the situation have been averted? In hindsight, a mother and children who’ve just rescued after days during which no answered their pleas for help may not have been the right people to approach until they got dry clothes, food and maybe counseling. A reporter must do everything possible to ensure a subject is comfortable telling his or her story — or having the story told. CNN’s Ed Lavandera and his crew modeled how it’s done when they turned off their camera while rescuing a family from floodwaters in Houston once they realized one family member had Alzheimer’s. Lavandera wanted to check her condition and ask the family if it was OK to film before turning the camera back on.
Reporters face another trap over our personal involvement with difficult events that unfold before our eyes. If we stick to a strict principle that we’re only observers, we’re pilloried as heartless. Consider Sonia Nazario, the Los Angeles Times reporter whom readers assailed for not intervening or calling authorities to stop the abuse of children of addicts she profiled in 1997. Nazario said she didn’t want to alter reality, and the conditions she described were so shocking they spurred an outpouring of calls to abuse hotlines and a surge in government funding. (Nazario also didn’t lend her cellphone to a Honduran boy whose desperate odyssey to reach his mother in the U.S. she chronicled, saying it would have changed his harrowing story, which won a 2003 Pulitzer Prize).
It’s a purist’s approach, and a harder line than I could take, much as I deeply admire Nazario’s reporting and impact. While I’ve never given money to refugees I met during wars in Bosnia or Afghanistan or victims of disasters in Haiti and Cuba, I did tell them about available services, alert authorities to people in need or share food and lend my phone to those missing family members when I could. These were small acts that might have slightly altered events for those few individuals, and in truth they had less impact than publishing other stories that sparked outrage and change. But I think it’s possible to both perform a public service by telling a larger story of crisis and to help individuals in front of you if authorities or aid workers aren’t present.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, numerous reporters have intervened in a dramatic way, helping save people in imminent danger, sometimes on live TV. CNN’s Drew Griffin and his crew hauled a man out of a sinking pickup truck in Beaumont, Texas. A reporter for KTRK, the ABC station in Houston, helped rescue elderly and infirm people trapped on a rooftop. A HuffPost reporter loaned his boat to rescue workers, while a duo from KHOU, the CBS affiliate in Houston, flagged down a sheriff to rescue a drowning driver trapped in an 18-wheeler in Houston.
While some have hailed the reporters as heroes, others are grumbling they’ve become the story, hogging the spotlight from victims and first responders. During coverage of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, the Society for Professional Journalist cautioned press, “report the story, don’t become part of it.”
“Participating in events…takes news reporting in a different direction and places journalists in a situation they should not be in, and that is one of forgoing their roles as informants,” then-president of SPJ Kevin Smith said at the time of the earthquake.
Yes, but…when human beings are in imminent danger and a journalist can help save a life if a rescuer isn’t there, we’re also human beings.
All of this is not to say that journalists are doing a perfect job shining a light on mass tragedies. Twelve years ago during Hurricane Katrina, journalists made lasting mistakes, painting an apocalyptic picture of lawlessness that has endured in our collective consciousness, though much of the information about grisly crime sprees given by officials turned out to be false.
Bias also pervaded coverage. Remember two photos of victims trudging through chest-deep water after Hurricane Katrina carrying bags of food? The AP captioned a photo of a Black man carrying food after “looting a grocery store,” while a very similar photo of a White couple by the AFP described them “finding bread and soda from a local grocery store.”
Remember this after Katrina? The difference between "looting" and "finding" is often black and white pic.twitter.com/nZoaP0KJ2l
— Astead W. Herndon (@AsteadWH) August 29, 2017
It’s hard to see the jarring contrast absent racial bias, and it’s important that reporters and editors check assumptions before they caption, broadcast and publish.
In a disaster, journalists uphold ethical standards by informing the public accurately and fairly, keeping our focus on the problem and solutions and treating victims with respect and empathy. Just don’t be surprised if you catch some flak along the way. Remember that it’s a tense and emotional time for everyone.
Correction: Houston is the nation’s fourth most populous city, not fifth.