How to plan for & persist through disaster coverage

March 6, 2018 11:00

By Gretchen Dworznik, Assistant Professor, Kent State University

Covering the aftermath of a hurricane that roars through your region presents challenges that normal news routines can’t always account for. And when that hurricane also dumps 27 trillion gallons of water on your state, things get even worse. Flooded and damaged newsrooms, loss of electricity and running water, and reporters with damage to their own homes and cars all had to be dealt with as news directors and editors scrambled to cover Harvey in late August 2017. As part of a study about the effects of covering the storm, 30 reporters spoke about their experiences and provided advice for news managers who may someday find themselves in the path of a hurricane.
Part 1 today focuses on planning and coverage. Stay tuned for part 2, focusing on the trauma of the coverage.
Lesson #1 - Help Young Reporters Prepare
Many of the reporters covering Harvey were in their first jobs and had no idea what to expect. Most didn’t even know they needed to prepare themselves personally, so they left no time to board windows, move furniture, stockpile food and water, or even fill prescriptions. After the storm, they couldn’t get basic necessities and medication because stores were closed by the time they left work each night.  
Lesson #2 - Clear Expectations and Praise for Work
Not only were they young, but most reporters had never covered a hurricane before. Being told to “go out and find a story,” without clear expectations or guidelines, left them frustrated and fearful. Because normal news routines disappear during disaster coverage, clear guidance and delineation of roles and expectations is especially important. Praise for a job well done also reinforced that they were meeting expectations and making good choices in the field. 
Lesson #3 - Consistent Schedule/Meaningful Rest
Long hours out in the field came as no surprise, but what made it hard was the inconsistency. The chaos of the aftermath, especially in the areas that flooded unexpectedly, resulted in schedules that flipped from days to nights to both day and night. Reporters noted being promised a morning or afternoon off to rest, only to be called in. The inconsistency increased the stress of the coverage since they couldn’t count on a meaningful break. The compounding fatigue quickly led to burnout.
Lesson #4 – Breaks from Coverage
The victim-focused coverage of the Harvey aftermath became especially repetitious and draining. Many felt their jobs became about trying to find new ways to tell the same story over and over. Rotating reporters off the victim beat would have provided a much needed mental and emotional break, which ultimately improves morale, energy and quality of work.
Lesson #5 – Story Diversity
The repetition of the victim and damage coverage was not only emotionally draining, but it began to get boring. Reporters became frustrated knowing there were other important angles that needed covered, but they always weren’t given the chance to do so. Reporters felt the work was more gratifying and beneficial when they were given some freedom to move beyond just victims and destruction and focus on other meaningful aspects of the aftermath.
Gretchen Dworznik is a former television reporter now teaching journalism at Kent State University. She specializes in research about how covering trauma impacts journalists.
Covering the storm itself is just the beginning
Newsroom Crisis Planning Guide
Are you ready for trauma in the newsroom? New research may help.