Five Steps to Covering a Disaster Effectively

Hight, managing editor of The Oklahoman, runs down how a newsroom can prepare to cover unexpected disasters.

1. Your Plan

Take a few minutes during the first day's coverage to plan for the days to follow — beyond the first day. Follow-up coverage is vital. Think about coverage before disaster occurs. Does your newsroom have sufficient resources to cover a disaster? Do you need an overall plan?

2. Your Focus

Have certain people/teams responsible for different areas. Here is a breakdown of The Oklahoman's teams during the bombing in 1995 and the tornado outbreak in May 1999:

BOMBING — Law Enforcement (the scene, investigative, tracing how donations are spent, etc.); victims (dead and injured. This includes a person responsible for accuracy of numbers and spelling of names); help and recovery (how the community can help and how the victims can get help); and business (effect on insurance, etc.).

TORNADO — Areas hit by tornadoes (three teams that concentrated on Midwest City, Del City and Bridge Creek, Moore and other state areas); "Profiles of Life" (stories about the victims' lives, person responsible for accuracy of numbers and spelling of names, etc.); business, and help and recovery. In initial days of coverage, meet with representatives of teams, copy editing desk(s), photography and graphics or arts departments at least twice a day to discuss scope of coverage.

3. Your Story Affects People

  • Teach your reporters and editors about how to approach and interview victims. Remind them during the coverage.
  • Emphasize that victims must be treated with dignity and respect.
  • Victims should be approached but allowed to say no. If the answer is no, the reporter should leave a card or number so victims can call back later. Oftentimes, the best stories come this way.
  • Each victim is an individual and must be treated that way, not just as part of an overall number.
  • Little things count. Call victims back to verify facts and quotes. Return photos (if possible, hire runners to get and return photos). Emphasize writing "Profiles of Life" about the victims, instead of the usual stories about how they died.
  • Try calling funeral homes or representatives first to connect with a family member. In most cases, victims' relatives wanted to talk when they realized that the reporter was writing a "Profile of Life." Some of these led to bigger stories, too. Establish policies that affect your coverage.
  • The Oklahoman reporters covered public memorial services for the victims of the bombing and tornado, but not private funerals.
  • Don't re-run the bloody images on anniversaries and key dates. However, consider showing comparison pictures of destruction with current ones on the recovery's success.

4. Your Community is Important

Readers and viewers need outlets to provide help. They need forums to vent their feelings.

  • Use newspaper (or station) and on-line product to provide forums on what people are thinking, words of encouragement, and offer lists for ways people can help and how they have helped (acts of kindness).
  • Find ways people are helping and report on them throughout the recovery process. (This provides hope for the community). That coverage must begin to focus on other parts of the community at some point. How much coverage is too much? When does the journalist become infatuated with a story when the public is not? A community is much more than a mass killing or disaster. Your newspaper or medium must reflect that.

5. Your Newsroom's "Wall Effect"

Like a tennis ball that's hit against a wall and bounces back to the person, the emotional trauma suffered by the victims could bounce back and affect the reporters who are interviewing the victims.

  • Offer individual counseling and even group debriefing. (Professions such as police and fire now require debriefings. The Oklahoman required debriefings of reporters who covered victims of the 1999 tornadoes.)
  • Offer meals to reporters and editors during first days or weeks of coverage. Then gradually end these so they will be encouraged to go elsewhere — a return to their own normalcy.
  • Send e-mails or memos that offer encouragement, reminders of what day and date it is, tips to alleviate stress, and letters and notes from readers.

(The Oklahoman received the 1996 Dart Award for Excellence in Reporting on Victims of Violence for its exhaustive and sensitive coverage of the federal-building bombing.)