Coverage guidelines: Hurricanes and natural disasters

March 28, 2018 01:35

Spring’s arrival brings welcome sunshine and flowers, but also means the arrival of tornado season in the Midwest and South and, soon, Atlantic hurricane season.

Now is the time for newsroom managers to begin preparing for disaster coverage. Begin your coverage plan by referencing RTDNA’s coverage guidelines for hurricanes and other natural disasters.

In the most active hurricane season since 2005, 2017 brought the devastation of three Category 4 hurricanes making landfall in astonishingly quick succession.

As Hurricane Harvey ripped through Houston, TEGNA station KHOU’s building was flooded, taking the station briefly off the air even as its reporters continued informing viewers on Facebook Live, eventually getting back its feed thanks to remote production.

Disaster reporting can be hard on journalists living through the destruction, but information at its best saves lives. This critical "First Informer" role is now federally recognized, as the definition of "essential service providers" was updated recently to include broadcasters, allowing radio and television personnel access to federal disaster areas to maintain critical equipment.

During disasters, journalists have a particular responsibility to be accurate and ethical in their reporting.

In Puerto Rico, Hurricane Maria caused power outages and supply shortages ongoing months later. CBS News’ David Begnaud, who continues to report extensively from the island, said of journalism’s role in the crisis:

“I have never seen journalism seem to make a difference quite like this story has.… I’ve never covered a disaster where everything seemed to stop quite like it did in Puerto Rico.…When journalism can make a difference and serve a valued purpose, it feels like a darn good thing....The point is, it’s not ‘yay, look what we were able to do,’ it’s that’s what journalism should be doing. That’s what we should be doing.”

The coverage guidelines for hurricanes and other natural disasters have been compiled to give news managers a framework for coverage so their newsrooms can fulfill their vital role in the unfortunate event of natural disasters.

The guidelines do not replace news judgement and careful planning by your station leadership, but are a tool to ensure managers are asking the necessary questions. They address planning for disaster coverage, balancing the tone of disaster reporting, and addressing accuracy in situations when facts can be fuzzy.

We hope you do not need these guidelines, but urge newsrooms to review them before disaster strikes.

More: A hurricane reporter's checklist.
RTDNA's series of more than 30 coverage guidelines is designed to assist journalists and newsroom managers with ethical and operational situations from native advertising and avoiding conflicts of interest to covering race, children, crime and more.