How local news covers news that’s not local

August 22, 2017 01:30

By Treena Wood, RTDNA Contributor
“If you’re not there, you don’t care.” I heard that once in reference to a politician who wasn’t in his riding during an emergency situation. The suggestion is that the optics are bad when an elected representative is hanging out in the capitol when they should be comforting their constituents.

Does that apply to news organizations too? If we’re not where the big story is, telling that story live and in person, are we not doing our jobs for our listeners?

This dilemma was very real for my newsroom this past July. We are in Vancouver, on the coast of British Columbia, and late one Friday night a series of wildfires burning in the province’s central interior exploded out of control. Entire towns were being evacuated, thousands of people were put on alert, and highways were closing. It’s the kind of story that local radio news has always excelled at. Problem was, it wasn’t “local.” The heart of the action was at least a six hour drive away, and becoming further away by the second as more highways closed. Flying people to the area was an option, but with budgets being what they are these days, not a feasible one.

So we did what radio newsrooms have always done – we worked the phones. We contacted people we know up there, and the people that our people know. We put a reporter live on the story in the newsroom and that person was the quarterback, keeping the content fresh with each new interview and nugget of information. Since it’s 2017, we also worked social media. We followed established hashtags and reached out to people directly for on-air interviews and permission to use their photos and video. We followed the emergency agencies, regional districts, and local mayors on Twitter as that’s where information was often disseminated first. When evacuees started trickling in to emergency shelters in our area we pounced on the opportunity to make the story truly “local” by sending a reporter.

Covering a distant story isn’t much different than covering a local one. It takes skill, creative thinking, a phone stuck to your ear and your Facebook page constantly open, but it can be done, and done well. Good journalism helps audiences understand issues and events by sharing experiences at a human level. There were no journalists on the moon when Armstrong and Aldrin arrived, but with models, animation, illustrations, an expert in-studio guest, black and white video and crackly radio transmissions, the world could be a part of it. If you can't be on the ground where it's happening, build as many connections as you can with people who are there, and become a conduit to help them tell their own story.

Treena Wood is News Director at CKWX-AM in Vancouver, BC.