On Monday, May 20, a devastating monster of a tornado hit Moore, Oklahoma; the second category 5 tornado to hit this little town. (It happened before on May 3, 1999, with 44 deaths.) Reports coming in today, the day after, state it was two miles wide, of colossal, possibly even record-breaking, proportions. Whole neighborhoods have been flattened, and the grim prediction is that the number of dead, at 24 as of this writing, is sure to rise.
Tragically, the 2013 tornado in Moore took out two separate elementary schools while children were attending classes. They each took direct hits, with numerous injuries and at least nine school deaths reported so far.
Because it's such a huge disaster, some 24 hours afterward, after a full day and night of non-stop coverage, facts and theories are competing for attention with the non-stop emotional wrangling provided by fully grown, professionally trained, gainfully employed anchors and reporters who, in calmer times--we can only hope--really, truly hate that sort of thing.
I've been wandering around the internet today while watching the coverage on TV and I think I can safely say that for that one person out of a hundred who wants to see bloodied heads and terrified kids and TV personalities asking how the victims are feeling, there are 99 of us who don't.
So here is my short list of things those pros might want to avoid when reporting a disaster, if they want to remain professionals and not be seen forevermore as shameless hacks:
- 1. If it's a hurricane, a blizzard or a tornado, do not allow
yourself to be talked into standing out in the wind and rain/snow in
order to show your audience that it's incredibly windy and
raining/snowing really hard. Get yourself inside. Plant
yourself in front of a window and direct the cameraperson (who
doesn't want to be out there any more than you do) to film you as
you report on the wind and rain you can both see outside that
window. We will see what you see. The effect will be the
same--big wind, heavy rain/snow--and you'll save your clothing, your hair
and your dignity. (The best part is that it won't be about you
trying to challenge the weather when the real story is about the
many others who will have lost everything.)
- 2. You should at all costs avoid the overuse of the following
words or phrases--unless the use of them is absolutely essential to
the story: (Hint: There is almost no case where these
words will add anything to your story.) Death and
destruction, horror, terror, disturbing, unspeakable, heartbreaking,
heart-wrenching, heartrending, mangled bodies, crushed bodies, body
parts, severed limbs, entrails, decapitation, impalement.
- 3. After the first two hours or so, it's time to stop describing the scene as "like a battle/war zone". Ditto, the sound as "like a freight train". Break out the thesaurus if you must, but really--I beg you to cease and desist.
- 4. Do not stand in the same pile of rubble, teddy bear in
hand (or Disney Princess bowling ball--my god, CNN!), repeating the
same script hour after hour. Use a little imagination. We're
not all just coming to you for the first time; some of us are tuned
in impatiently waiting for some real news.
- 5. Avoid like the plague interviewing anyone who insists that
God has saved them or their loved ones. We all understand that
their gratitude knows no bounds once they find that they/their loved
ones are alive, and it does seem miraculous, but please give some
consideration to those folks who weren't so lucky. Logic
dictates that if God has the power and the inclination to save one
person, he could--but didn't--save another. If the interviewee
doesn't have enough sense to understand how hurtful that can be to a
victim's family, you as the professional should. Don't be a
witness to that.
- 6. And lastly and most importantly, never, never, never bend
over and shove a microphone into a small child's face, expecting
them to say something meaningful. You will not only
appear insanelook stupid, you will have lost all semblance of integrity. Even if a parent gives permission and is standing right there encouraging that small child, do not do it. It isn't about you. It isn't about the parent. It isn't about the ratings. As the viewer, it's not about me, either. It's about the children. This is their tragedy, not ours. We can't begin to know how they feel, and it's not our place to expect them to explain. (Note: if you find yourself searching for sad signs of a happier, pre-disaster child; a disheveled doll, a mangled pedal car, a broken toy, so you can go all melodramatic on us--stop. Just stop. Please.)
(Addendum: I should have known. Wolf Blitzer topped them all today. He interviewed a tornado survivor and her son and ended it by asking her if she "thanked the lord" for being here. She said, "Actually, I'm an atheist." Priceless!)