This is another Training Tracks blog post from the archive of No Train, No Gain, originally published Aug. 23, 2004:
After Charley swept through Florida, a colleague there wrote asking if I had a workshop on covering a hurricane. Working in Omaha now and having spent my career in the Midwest, I responded that I might be able to help with a tornado. By now that colleague might be able to lead his own workshop on covering a hurricane.
How ready is your news operation to cover a disaster? How well do you learn from the disasters and other big stories you cover?
My newsroom (the Omaha World-Herald) is studying our own preparedness for covering big stories. As part of that work, I called Mike Jacobs, publisher of the Grand Forks Herald, who was editor in 1997 when flood and fire devastated downtown Grand Forks, including the newspaper building.
The Herald won the Pulitzer Prize for its excellent coverage of the flood and fire under the most trying of circumstances (the memorable headline: “Come hell and high water”). Still, when I asked Jacobs for advice on covering the big story, he focused first on a problem his staff faced.
“You need to know your community a lot better than you do now,” Jacobs said. He and many staff members had lived in Grand Forks for years and they thought they knew the community and who did what. They even had prepared for flood coverage in the weeks before the flood, as forecasts warned of rising water.
But the flood was worse than anyone imagined, then compounded by fire. And the Herald staff didn’t know who would play all the critical roles in that dual disaster response. Much of what they did know was stored in computer files and Rolodexes that burned down with their offices.
They covered the disaster brilliantly from two makeshift newsrooms, despite personal flood losses by many staff members. But they also learned valuable lessons Jacobs is happy to share.
Joe Hight, managing editor of the Daily Oklahoman, is another editor who knows something about disaster coverage. Calling on his staff’s experience in covering the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, Hight compiled a tip sheet, offering this advice:
“Most victims or victims’ relatives face a wall of grief in the aftermath of a death or disaster. The wall blocks them from seeing that their lives may improve tomorrow. They don’t see into the past or future; they see the present and feel the pain of the moment. Then the reporter approaches them and violates their grieving space. Or, in a disaster, several reporters approach them.”
I sent my Florida colleague a link to Hight’s advice, as well as to the handout for my workshop, “Covering the Big, Breaking Story.” I also sent a copy of the St. Paul Pioneer Press’ guide to covering disasters. That guide, compiled by Kate Parry with help from other Knight Ridder colleagues, stresses the need for preparation:
“When disaster strikes, our impulse is to get out the door as quickly as possible – and that’s the right reaction. But in a very short time, you can do yourself a big favor by grabbing the right equipment. If you don’t, you can end up hampered for days in your ability to stay in touch with your editor or colleagues in the field. You can end up cold, hungry and wet.”
One important step in planning for disasters and other big stories is to debrief and train after big stories.
A common theme of training is that we often don’t teach people new things, but help them discover what they already know. This is especially true of journalists who excel on big stories. Celebrate their achievement, of course, but also analyze it. How did you do it? What techniques did you use that might apply to other kinds of big stories?
You also need to learn the tough lessons, too. Even if you did excel, do as Jacobs did after the Herald’s stellar performance. Ask what didn’t go as well and how you can prepare to do better next time.
When the adrenaline rush fades, consider what kind of training and preparation you can do on slow news days to help you do even better the next time disaster strikes.
Links to help with disaster coverage:
Update: I got considerable experience with disaster coverage in 2008 when I was the editor of the Cedar Rapids Gazette. I developed a workshop on disaster coverage in the digital age.