Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Six Things Media Personalities Could and Should Avoid when Covering a Disaster

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 insane look 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.)
The victims deserve not to have to be victimized twice, all in the name of filling time while waiting for the rest of the story.  The last thing they need in times like these is to have to wrestle with an over-zealous yahoo with a microphone and a camera.  That's why so many of them ask you to go away.  It's a pity more of them don't.

(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!)


  1. I'm afraid some scenes of devastation, and the emotions they evoke, can only be accurately described with the simile "like a battle/war zone". I also think we should have a little patience with TV personalities forced to spend hours "covering" a disaster with little breaking news during most of that time. Change channels if you don't like it, and find something more constructive to complain about. This sounds too much like a First World Problem.

  2. If there is no new information during a disaster it makes no sense to "force" personalities to spend hours covering essentially nothing. It forces them to get stupid, and they're no help to anyone looking for news.

    How news personalities cover disasters may not be as earth-shattering as the disaster itself, but they're supposed to be professionals. Changing channels won't help, either. They all do it. Turning off the TV means I might miss what I've been waiting for.

    This kind of thing bugs me no end. I'm an opinion blogger. This is my opinion. Also my blog.

  3. That tendency to air and talk nonstop also contributes heavily to the spread of misinformation. Look at how much of the Boston Marathon bombing's coverage was just flat out wrong. And Sandy Hook.

    There are still people out there parroting details the media got wrong in both of those.

    My habit now is to forgo the immediate, live coverage and to wait until the dust clears a little, since the later emerging facts often contradict the live "breaking" coverage, since loads of that "breaking" coverage consists of conjecture and "so and so is reporting..." Too often, so and so doesn't really know anything and is getting it wrong.

    BTW, Ramona, good piece here, well expressed and reflecting my thoughts exactly. Well done.

  4. Thank you, Isaac. I usually watch those things at the very beginning and then do as you do and just check in now and then to see what's new. The Oklahoma tornado had me at the edge of my seat for hours, basically because it was so huge and there were schools and children involved.
    Connie Schultz started this topic on her FB page and I realized that I wasn't the only one who felt this way about both the inanity and the melodrama, so I ran with it.

    You're right that so much misinformation stems from this apparent need to keep the story going, even when there's nothing there. I tend to take all early reporting with a grain of salt. In this story alone, the first death tolls were 51, with at least two dozen children dead. That turned out to be wrong, but it carried for a full 24 hours before it was corrected. (It was still there when I first published my post. I had to go back and correct it once the true numbers came out.)

  5. And stop using the term "Ground Zero".

  6. Well written, Ramona. Along with filling the giant news void, I'm afraid that a lot of coverage is actually meant to satisfy the curiosity of morbid onlookers. Your estimate that 99 out of 100 viewers don't want to see gore may be too generous. Sticking a microphone in the face of a traumatized victim is the digital version of getting in your car to go see an accident site or watch a house burn down. One news report yesterday mentioned that a traffic jam of sightseers was causing problems for the rescue teams in Moore. The print and online media is showing more and more graphic pictures to satisfy this same "need to know" mentality. Some of those pictures are powerful and send an important message, but as you said, we don't need to see every tear-streaked bloody face to feel empathy for victims of direful events. (broke out the thesaurus in your honor)

  7. Good one. I forgot that. Thanks.

  8. Thanks, PD. Ugh on that sightseer traffic jam. Who does that? Especially when they know they're going to cause problems if they're on the road emergency vehicles need to travel. But, yes, they're the ones the TV people pander to.

    P.S. I had to look up that word "direful". It's a good one!

  9. A related note, wrong use of the word "tragedy".

    "Tragedy" should NOT be used when describing a deliberate act of violence, like a terrorist attack, or the Boston Marathon/Olympic Park bombings. A deliberate act of violence is not a "tragedy", although it can have "tragic" aftereffects, such as leaving children without parents or vice versa.

    The use of the word "tragedy" to describe a deliberate act of violence undercuts the evil of the act itself, it undercuts the wrong done to the victims.

    And regarding "Ground Zero", you're right.

    Having been out to the original "Ground Zero" twice, the Trinity Site where the first atomic bomb test was conducted, it's an unsettling feeling standing at the spot where you know, down to the second, the reality & conditions of our future existence absolutely changed.

  10. Great thoughts, KingCranky. There is something a bit off about the word "tragedy" when describing violent acts, but I had no problem with it during the Sandy Hook reporting. I didn't think it undercut the evil, I felt it underscored it. I remember trying to come up with another word when I was writing about Sandy Hook. The best I could come up with was "gun-inflicted tragedy". I wasn't completely satisfied, but if ever there was a tragedy, that was it.

  11. As for correspondents standing outside during hurricanes while reporting, I only have one word:

    D U M B

    I suppose the producers think it helps make for more dramatic footage or something, but come on, let's be real.

    Although I don't wish it to happen, it's probably inevitable that one of them will be impaled or decapitated on live television by something big blowing around in gale force winds. Now THAT would be dramatic footage and it would be a dumb way to get it.

    As you said, they should stand indoors in front of a window. We get the idea that the wind is blowing really, really hard--that's what a hurricane IS. Can't have a hurricane without high, strong winds.

  12. I agree with you on this; but, I do change the station. I pay extra for movies without commercials, which have been very useful recently. When I can't find a good movie, I crank up the dvd player. I just plain will not watch the wall-to-wall coverage of any tragedy because so little is "new" news.

  13. Ha! I remember seeing Al Roker get knocked off his feet by a big wind gust a few years ago. He's still out there fighting the wind. I have to believe it's not really his idea.

  14. That would be the smart thing to do, and usually I do change the channels, but as I said, this was big and there were kids involved so i was there waiting to see what was going on. Fortunately, all that waiting gave me food for a blog post. So it ain't all bad.

  15. And any of them who use the phrase "Hunker down" should be immediately taken out into the storm and beaten senseless with the video camera.

  16. I'm with you. How about they just STFU for a while and let the story develop, instead of forcing it into places it won't go?
    If you HAVE to have 24/7 coverage, put the camera on a stand, and pan it back and forth across the scene of destruction, and give an update every couple of hours.

  17. Family Guy did a great bit on it.


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