August 24, 2010

I am reporting to you again today from New Orleans, where the city is getting ready to mark the five-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s landfall. I’m here leading a three-day workshop for Gulf Coast journalists who are covering the BP oil gusher.

On Tuesday, Dr. Irwin Redlener, director of Columbia University’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness, spoke to the participants about how humans respond to mega disasters. The BP oil disaster, he said, is so much more than a story about an oil spill and the ecological effects it leaves behind.

“If the story about the Deepwater Horizon oil well gusher is just how to cap a well, then we miss the longest tale of all,” Redlener said, noting that the human effect of enduring a mega disaster is profound, deep and long-lasting.

Redlener’s center has been studying the mental health effects of the BP oil spill since the blowout in April. In June, his center issued a report that showed:

  • “Over one-third of parents reported that their children had experienced either physical symptoms or mental health distress as a consequence of the oil spill.
  • “One in five households has seen their income decrease as a result of the oil spill, and eight percent have lost jobs. Only five percent of coastal residents reported having received any cash or gift cards from BP, although over fifteen percent believe they may be eligible for compensation from BP for health consequences of the spill.
  • “Over one-quarter of coastal residents think they may have to move from the area because of the oil spill.”

Redlener also spoke about some of the funding issues that come into play when dealing with mega disasters. He said the government dramatically underfunds efforts to prepare for disasters such as terrorist attacks, earthquakes, hurricanes, floods or oil/chemical spills.

“There is a massive disconnect between what the government thinks should be done and what it spends to be prepared,” he said. Few Americans are willing to prepare for disasters in their own homes, he noted, much less demand that the government be better prepared for more wide-scale disasters.

During his presentation, Redlener offered five tips for journalists covering disaster preparedness:

1. Be more tolerant of uncertainty.
Public officials can get into a lot of trouble when they’re pressured to give answers that make them sound uncertain. If uncertainty is reported, it creates a credibility issue for journalists and for officials. Redlener said journalists should seek as much clarity as possible, but they should also be tolerant of the answer “I don’t know” if it’s followed by a promise that the official will find out the answer at some point. 

2. Find out who is really in charge.
In any mega disaster, understanding who’s in charge of what is vitally important. But, as the BP oil disaster has shown, this information isn’t always apparent. Early on, the Coast Guard allowed BP to control the incident. BP has largely controlled the response and the cleanup, and has controlled information about the health and treatment of cleanup workers.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, Redlener said, is depending on BP to turn over data on how many cleanup workers have been treated for medical assistance. BP contracts with fishermen to skim the oil and with cleanup crews to clean marshes and beaches. So while the government says it is in charge of the cleanup, journalists find that BP largely controls the flow of information.

3. Dig for deeper context.
When you talk to government officials about mega disasters, they’re likely to give you a laundry list of what they have been doing to ameliorate the situation. “Don’t accept the laundry-list. The denominator is the need,” Redlener said. “Compare the need against what they say they are doing.” He suggested journalists ask: “What are we doing, what do we really need to be doing and what’s the gap?”

4. Look for takeaways.
Redlener said that after every disaster, we should spend time learning the lessons of what went right and what went wrong.

5. Find evidence to support anecdotes.
 “Anecdotes are not data,” Redlener reminded journalists. An anecdotal story about a child who got a rash in oil-contaminated waters, for instance, doesn’t constitute as evidence that the spill is causing Spacer Spacer

rashes. The spill could be related, but it may not be. Look for concrete evidence, Redlener said, rather than covering stories about what people think is going on. Ask who is providing the data and whether it’s been verified.

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Al Tompkins is one of America's most requested broadcast journalism and multimedia teachers and coaches. After nearly 30 years working as a reporter, photojournalist, producer,…
Al Tompkins

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