August 16, 2004

I stared at the line that appeared on one news channel after another, tracing the predicted path of Hurricane Charley. The red, curving line — filled with spinning circles — led right up to Tampa Bay, Fla., where I live. The news I watched, heard, and read prior to Hurricane Charley’s arrival mattered; it factored into decisions I would make with my family that might spell deliverance or disaster.

Anyone facing the possibility of a life-threatening event, such as a hurricane, a tornado, or even an act of terrorism, depends on the news media for information. We, like others in similar situations, face serious questions: What should we do? Where should we go? How soon should we act? How the news media responds to such questions may help or hinder us.

So what are our ethical responsibilities when providing such coverage? I’d like to use the coverage I saw of Hurricane Charley to think out loud about that.

I watched the local news media throw itself completely into the coverage of a local hurricane threat unlike any other in years. Local news directors and editors dispatched crews everywhere they thought would yield information people might need. 

I felt grateful for every fact that clarified what was happening. I shuddered each time I heard pronouncements that made possibilities seem like indisputable facts. I felt overwhelmed when the information flowed indiscriminately, without any other purpose than to pass it on.

More coverage is good. More thoughtful coverage is better. A return to fundamental reporting, which includes ethics as a critical component, becomes imperative.

I valued the substantive reports that told me what knowledgeable sources, government officials, and hurricane experts had to say. I wondered when some news people spoke with authority about what would happen and what people should do. How did they know this? What were they basing it on?

For example, I heard a number of reports that the hurricane was definitely headed our way. We needed to evacuate. While I valued the information, I felt more confident about it when the reporter attributed it to a source. Some did. Some did not. I imagine that to save time some reporters simply relayed the information directly without wasting time on attribution. But that attribution helps the news consumer evaluate how reliable the information is.

I sensed sameness in the coverage. Reports seemed to agree with each other. This made the information, and the latest technological tools used to track the storm, seem even more solid. Reporters did not always remind us that nothing was certain. The tone seemed authoritative. But I wondered if there were different, or contrary, views?

The uncertainty,unpredictability of the event sometimes seemed de-emphasized. The Washington Post, for example, published a piece after the hurricane hit that explained tracking paths is more accurate than it used to be, but not perfect. Had we been aware of the limitations, we might have made different decisions, as indeed some of those south of us may wish they had.

Our reporting has implications for the public, whether the news involves a hurricane, tornado, flood, severe storm, or terror alert. To handle that reality responsibly, consider using ethical guidelines and questions as part of the reporting process. Think about:

  • Gathering information that includes different, or contrary, views and perspectives
  • Attributing the information so people can verify it and know how reliable it is
  • Providing perspective on similar events in the past that might help gauge the different scenarios that might emerge
  • Explaining who is making the predictions, why they’re making them, where they’re coming from, what expertise they have, and their track record on this matter
  • Refraining from sounding like the authority on the subject and instead seek out authoritative sources

If you have other suggestions, please share them. The coverage of such events taxes journalists, as well as the public. We need the confidence to share what we know, what we don’t know, and what we need to know. Then we can report that so the public feels alerted, not just alarmed.

The hurricane hit south of us, ravaging the coastal and inland communities in its path. While we were spared, others suffered. The coverage of the disaster continues. For those who thought the hurricane would hit their communities, and for those who experienced it, the hunger for information has not abated.

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Aly Colón is the John S. and James L. Knight Chair in Journalism Ethics at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. Previously, Colón led…
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