This free tool will help you pinpoint the news in a disaster zone

Are you prepared for the next big story that comes to the city or town you cover? This tool will help you. 

Hare: Hi, Ren! What are we learning about today?

LaForme: Today will be a little different. Rather than sharing a proven tool for journalists, I wanted to flag something that folks are using right now in the middle of all of the terrible flooding happening in Texas. Our colleague, Al Tompkins, flagged an app called Zello the other day that folks who are stranded are using to link up with rescuers. Have you seen this at all?

Hare: I have, but I didn’t realize there was an app behind it. But of course there’s an app behind it! Tell me more.

LaForme: It basically functions like a CB radio. Or at least I think it does (I haven’t used one of those in a long time). You join a channel and then touch the microphone button to talk. Only one person talks at a time, but many can listen in. You can also send images and listen to messages that others have sent even if you missed them in real-time.

I just joined a channel where rescuers are sharing names and addresses of people in need. It’s so harrowing to listen to what they’re doing out there. People stuck on roofs, cars submerged, people suffering medical emergencies. The rescuers using this app are doing great work.

Hare: That’s intense. How do you see journalists using it best?

LaForme: To be honest with you, I’m not sure yet.

Obviously I wouldn’t advise that journalists jump on here and muck up the messages from people who are trying to get help. And it’s not a great idea to try to go to the places where these folks who need help are unless you’re geared up and have training to do so, and even then that’s not very journalistic.

I’m sure that some smart journalists will find ethical ways to use Zello in their reporting during this disaster, though. Maybe it’s to find groups of survivors who are willing to talk about what they faced. Maybe it’s to find some of the heroic rescue efforts taking place out there. What do you think?

Hare: I think that’s all very smart thinking. And, since I’m guessing most of us aren’t in Houston, now is the right time to play with something like Zello and get comfortable with it before you need it. I think the best use of tools comes when people get what they do and how they can be best used.

But even for people in Houston, it’s a nice way to dive in and find threads that are worth pulling at maybe after it’s all over, and, if people agree, can offer some great narrative storytelling moments.

LaForme: I totally agree with you on the point about getting comfortable with this app. Unfortunately, there’s going to be another tragedy. Whether it’s man-made or natural, another reason will arise for people to be using this app. Even if you’re not in Houston, it’s a good time to familiarize yourself with it.

It’s tough to draw that line between finding and reporting the news and being respectful of the people impacted by it. I know the journalists in Texas are thinking hard about that right now.

Hare: I see that, too. And this isn’t a tool as much as it is a best practice, but it’s worth telling your audience, viewers and readers that you took the time to get people’s permission, or that you talked beforehand. Show us how the sausage is made.

How else can you see this tool being useful for journalists?

LaForme: I was just looking at some of the available channels to listen in on. The top ones are all hurricane-related right now, but there are plenty of other ones with different topics. Things like technology, legalizing marijuana, drag racing. I could see some great uses for journalists looking for sources on various topics.

A newsroom could set up its own chat, as well, and solicit feedback. It’s sort of a fun and novel way to do that.

Hare: I love that idea! What other tools that are great tools that journalists should consider testing out ahead of a giant story like what’s happening in Houston?

LaForme: Good question! First, I’d say to be comfortable with your phone. Know where all of your apps are (or how to launch them quickly). Make sure you can type up sizable chunks of text on your mobile device, since you’re not likely to have a laptop at the ready when you’re in the middle of a disaster like this. Know how long your battery lasts and know how to charge it quickly if it’s getting low. Keep an external battery and charger handy. I use this one.

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In terms of apps, I’d say you should be ready and willing to use Facebook Live. A year ago I would have said Periscope, but now I think you’d be limiting your audience with it, unless you’re trying to reach a strong Twitter crowd. If you want to embed this on your site, also consider YouTube Live. If you’re planning to go live, it won’t hurt to invest in a decent microphone for your phone (I recommended this one in a newsletter a few weeks ago).

If you’re taking a lot of pictures and videos, or even writing a lot from your device, know how you’re going to get it back to your newsroom. Data networks often slow down during disasters. Do you have an efficient way to send things? I recommend researching and getting comfortable with FTP instead of relying on native apps on iOS or Android, which can have compatibility issues or be buggy.

Also consider the fact that audio combined with photos can be just as effective as videos, and much easier to send from clogged-up data networks. The native audio recording app in iOS and Android should work just fine for capturing audio.

Hare: Excellent. Well, if you’re not in Houston, get to testing. Now’s the time.

Editor's note: This is the latest in a series of articles that highlight digital tools for journalists. You can read the others here. Got a tool we should talk about? Let Ren know!

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