News organizations need to prepare in advance for natural disasters such as hurricanes, floods, wildfires or earthquakes. These are events in which journalists need to avoid becoming part of the story. Journalists have a special responsibility in such situations to be accurate and to be measured in the tone of their coverage. A good guideline in such situations is to overreact in the newsroom and under-react on air or online.
Here are some guidelines to keep in mind.
Before a Disaster
- News managers need to set clear expectations and establish practical protocols for journalists working in studios and in the field before, during and after a natural disaster strikes. During a disaster, make sure your home and family are secure before reporting for work
- Journalists should keep in mind that their personal safety comes first. Managers should ask if live coverage in the path of a hurricane or wildfire presents a clear danger to staff, equipment and the public. What’s the value of putting your staff in harm’s way in order to show that yes, the wind is blowing?
- News managers should consider the possibility that a reporter who enters an evacuation shelter may be taking space from a community member who actually lives in an evacuation zone.
- Managers should consider establishing alliances with other news outlets (or college newsrooms) to assist in the event you are knocked off air or staff is unable to communicate.
- Prepare and plan for several days of coverage. Utilize the entire station staff including administration and the sales team to plan and organize meals, transportation for staff if needed, refueling of vehicles and generators, and prepare rest areas within the news organization for people who are not able to get home.
- What is the tone of the coverage? Is it of calm preparation or impending doom? How can the journalist raise audience awareness of the significant event while eliminating unnecessary hype and fear?
- News managers should identify a person or persons to monitor the character and tone of what is being published on digital platforms or broadcast. Remind your digital and social media teams not to publish anything online that would not be broadcast on air.
News managers need to evaluate the story from a broad perspective to ensure the team is providing the most relevant content with context.
- What is the standard for interrupting broadcast programming or moving social media and website homepages into disaster coverage modes?
- Does it change from one time period to another?
- Once programming is interrupted, how can you avoid speculation and repetition during the early moments when details are likely to be few and sketchy?
- What does the community need to know?
- What is the public safety issue or risk, if any?
- Who are the stakeholders involved?
- Journalists should understand the story - the natural phenomenon that is being covered..
- What do you know? How do you know it? Has the information been confirmed and/or vetted?
- Who confirmed the story? How is it affecting the community?
- Carefully evaluate those who claim to be witnesses. Respectfully ask where they were and what they were doing when they saw what they are describing. How far away were they? What were the conditions? Do not assume that anyone willing to talk with a journalist is telling the truth.
- Carefully review all user-generated content including pictures, video, 911 calls and other information before putting it on-air or online. See RTDNA guidelines for using User-Generated Content.
Newsroom crisis planning guide
How to add well-being to a newsroom natural disaster plan
How to balance being both reporters and victims in disaster coverage