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Akst: Covering disasters without worsening them

Most of the world’s tornadoes happen in the United States, and many of us have seen them. I grew up in the Texas panhandle, which is in Tornado Alley. We had a basement and kept a radio, shovel (Mom thought we might have to dig our way out), dried foods … and that’s it.

Our lives were never destroyed, and I have only a vague idea what people in Moore, Okla., are going through. Nobody really knows disaster until it happens to them.

We respond, help, grieve, and pray. We donate if we’re able. Finally, we seem to need to experience vicariously.

The news media (through traditional and social media platforms) is how most people learn of disasters, and how we experience them vicariously. This is both positive and negative.

Positive: More reliable (but still flawed) information, better imagery, better fact-checking, better access to policymakers, documents, etc., and less wildly speculative content.

Negative: The same mistakes we keep making.

On Monday, I was disappointed in NBC Chicago’s live TV report from Moore.

The first part was OK, but unsurprising because we had already seen the devastation. What wasn’t OK was a couple minutes later, when the Chicago crew went back to the reporter in Oklahoma for an update.

I steeled myself for new misery, but the “update” was that the reporter and cameraman had moved down the block to show video of a damaged building. The update wasn’t necessary.

Similarly, on Wednesday, I was disappointed to hear NBC news anchor Ann Curry ask a mom what she would say to day care workers who saved her child’s life. Curry’s question was ill-considered.

Ironically, disaster reporting sometimes makes the news media look good, a rarity these days. Here’s what Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin said at a news conference Tuesday: “I just want to thank the media for all that you’ve done to help our community get information that’s critical at a time like this.”

Part of the problem is that journalists don’t routinely receive training in disaster coverage. There are occasional special topics courses, but it’s not a standard part of the curriculum. With more training, we would do better, but when journalism programs and news organizations are struggling for survival, extra training often is not in the budget.

Bob Steele, a well-known journalism ethics expert, writes widely on journalists’ roles in covering disasters. Here are a few of his thoughts on reporters interviewing disaster victims:

• Recognize that this is probably the worst moment in their lives and it is likely to be the first time they are being interviewed by a reporter. They are highly vulnerable.

• Be respectful of those you contact for an interview. Remember that you may be one of many journalists contacting a victim or family member. Consider pool interviews in some situations to minimize the level of intrusion on those you wish to interview.

• Assess their vulnerability at the time you are contacting them. Recognize they are in mourning and may be in shock. Treat these individuals with compassion and empathy.

• Respect the wishes of those who do not wish to be interviewed. Offer them the opportunity to contact you later when they are able and willing to talk.

• For those who are willing to be interviewed, make sure they fully understand who you are and what your purpose is in requesting an interview.

• Be sensitive in requesting photographs of family members and, when given permission to use photos, commit to returning these photos quickly and in good condition.

• Don’t make things worse.

• Jason Akst teaches journalism and public relations at Northern Illinois University. You can reach him at or follow him on Twitter @jasonakst.

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