Reporter and her phone become go-to source during tornado recovery

April 11, 2019 11:00

This post first appeared on Kellerman's blog here. It is republished with permission.

Spending a few minutes talking with WRBL reporter Elizabeth White will remind you why you chose journalism as a profession. She’s the type of content creator who sees her job as a public service. That’s exactly what she provided March 3, 2019.

In the hours after an EF-4 tornado tore through the eastern Alabama town of Beauregard, people across the area desperately sought information. As they were reaching for their phones or turning on their TVs, White came out of her family’s storm shelter, kissed her kids goodbye, and told them mom needed to go to work.

Years ago, a manager told her to “take off her mom” hat when she went out to cover stories. She quickly learned that’s not how she would operate.

“My mom hat gives me perspective on things in a beautiful way.  Anyone can give the facts. It takes time to develop your voice and your heart,” White said.

Her heart was on display after the tornado. When she arrived on scene and fired up a Facebook Live feed on her cell, she wasn’t playing a reporter on television. White was a person who passionately felt it was her job to collect information, separate fact from fiction, and communicate critical safety information.

Given the circumstances, it wasn’t easy.

“Quite honestly, I felt like a piece of crap standing there with my phone while everyone else is doing work,” White recalled. “I just tried to help.”

Thousands of people watched as she navigated through the damage zone and talked to people coming out of their homes to make assessments. One of White’s live videos ended up running an hour and fifteen minutes. Back at the station, the WRBL television coverage dipped in and out of her stream.

“I want to take people from the very start to the very end. I’m not satisfied with leaving any questions unanswered,” she said. “To me, I need to stay there until it’s over.”

When it was said and done, the video collected some 7,000 shares and more than 500,000 views.

And White was just getting started.

Her Facebook page turned into a go-to spot for information about  storm recovery and the victims. In the days that followed, she had numerous posts with more than 1,000 shares — most of which were links back to the station’s digital stories.

On the Tuesday following that Sunday’s storm, White’s posts began before 5 a.m. and ended at roughly 10 at night. She posted 16 times that day. Three of her posts had more than 4,000 shares. The engagement on her page was through the roof.

None of this is new for the veteran reporter. It’s part of her regular routine.

In the television market of Columbus, Georgia that serves roughly 200,000 households, White has amassed a Facebook following of 65,000 people — more than some television stations. She says gathering likes through years is a product of hard work and consistency.

From making accuracy a priority to focusing on emotional headlines and writing, White has a strategy for growth and success in the digital space. She feels her greatest strength has been building her following based on credibility. In a world where it’s easy to label someone “the enemy of the people” or “fake news,” White goes out of her way to ensure the finger can’t be pointed at her. She’s built a trust and rapport with her audience. They know what to expect.

“It’s a mix of aggressiveness and being able to describe what I’m seeing and also being compassionate and respectful,” White said.

White keeps it real. She isn’t afraid to talk about her faith. She doesn’t identify victims before their names are released by law enforcement. She doesn’t show graphic scenes. In the case of the Beauregard tornado, she went out of her way to censor things happening around her out of respect to those affected. Throughout it all, she’s transparent with her audience about the decisions she’s making. Because of that, she’s built a reputation she refuses to sacrifice.

“They feel like I’m one of them,” White said of the community she’s created on Facebook.

And she certainly is “one of them.” White has the skills to jump to much larger markets but chooses to stay in that part of the country. It’s home.

Poynter’s Al Tompkins regularly says there’s nothing more noble in journalism than someone staying in one place to truly learn how to serve the people who live there.

Noble. That’s a pretty good adjective for Elizabeth White: the Nexstar Digital First Impact Award winner for March 2019.



 



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