Friday, October 9, 2015

Reporting Natural Disasters

 Jillian Kata

As seen all over the news, South Carolina has faced a devastating rainstorm, that has caused thousands of power outages and the worst flooding the state has seen in 1,000 years.  News outlets have covered the story with titles resembling ABC News’ coverage “The Harrowing Images from Deadly South Carolina Flooding” or Fox News’ headline titling “Death Toll Rises as South Carolina Coast Braces for Second Round”.  A natural disaster like this is nothing new, and neither is the extensive news coverage that has followed.  This got me thinking… How does ethics apply to the coverage of natural disasters?

Globally, media coverage of natural disasters plays a vital role in awareness and information about those in danger. In fact, must of the publics perception depends on it. Journalists must prepare to report rapidly evolving stories, deaths, and destructions of natural disasters. In this case, ethics is applied in the form of acquiring the truth.  If the global audience is depending on media coverage for a natural disaster, it is vital that news companies check their facts and wording.

Another key ethical dilemma involves the victims in the area.  As said by author Manoucheka Celeste in an article that analyzes the coverage of Hurricane Katrina, “Scholarly analysis of how disasters are covered provides some insight into the need to avoid further damaging already injured communities.”  Graphic images, personal experiences, and extensive coverage is powerful and could be emotionally damaging to the communities involved, especially if not told the right way. 

With natural disasters and many other crisis, word choice can make a huge impact on coverage, so much it can even change the publics understanding of the situation. 

For example, look at this photo above. What if an article described the photo this way “Tom, John, and David ride a canoe to investigate flood damage”.  People may not feel alarmed or emotional by this photo.  What if instead the photo was described this way: “Tom, John, and David ride a canoe to safety from flood damage.” Now your perception of the men’s actions has changed. You now have an understanding that the men are in danger, when with the previous description you did not.  Exchanging the word “safety” has altered your understanding about the floods and the level of danger.

As a journalist you must also think about the long-term effects of news coverage.  Celeste analyzed the new coverage of the Haiti earthquake and some of the long term effects of not the disaster, but the way it was reported in the news. “For people who knew little about the country and its people, and even for those who had some exposure, the images presented a powerful framework for future interactions and exposure.”  Be careful about stereotyping and leaving a long lasting misinterpretation about the community. 

The most important thing for journalists to remember when reporting natural disasters is truth.  Always fact check and deliver the information in a way that best exemplifies what is happening.  This is the most important aspect of applying ethics when reporting the South Carolina floods.


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  2. Jillian, this reminds me of Al Roker and the selfie he and his crew took when reporting the flooding. Perception is certainly important as they discovered when the public took them to task for how pleased they looked while in the background was a destroyed road and someone's car is in the ditch. I think it's also important for journalists to think about their demeanor when reporting on events that are tragic. Sheldon Good