Do Journalists Need To Come In Out of the Rain?

June 13, 2018
A Huffington Post video features a compilation of TV reporters covering hurricanes from within the wind and rain — something this week’s TipSheet advises against.

TipSheet: Do Journalists Need To Come In Out of the Rain?

The deaths of two journalists on May 28 after a tree fell on their car while covering storm Alberto in South Carolina was a reminder that — like other first responders — journalists sometimes put themselves in harm’s way unnecessarily and need to better mind their own safety.

With hurricane season underway, it’s time for some safety tips from the TipSheet.

Staying safe while covering hurricanes and storms

It has become a cliché for TV stations and networks to put on-camera reporters out in the elements during hurricanes and other major storms. They lean into the gusts and shout because the wind is drowning out their microphones, all the while wearing snappy logo rainjackets.

This. Is. Not. Smart. But producers believe it to be good TV. Occasionally it is. Some justify it as visual “proof” of a storm’s danger. But more often it adds nothing to the information the audience needs — and may even encourage unwise bravado as viewers emulate reporters.

Some tips have emerged for those who think they have to get out like this in storms. From the Observer:

  • Go early
  • Carry cash
  • Take control
  • Stay hydrated
  • Keep out of standing water
  • Don’t drive around pointlessly
  • Don’t be an idiot

A Time story adds some others:

  • Scout the area
  • Weatherproof equipment
  • Carry plastic wrap and duct tape
  • Carry food
  • Stay in touch with the desk

And some more from MSNBC veteran Sam Champion:

  • Watch for debris
  • Watch for power lines
  • Find sheltered positions
  • Stay upwind of trees

A few more obvious ones:

  • Plan escape routes
  • Plan retreat areas
  • Respect storm surge
  • Check in with emergency agencies (have you got three good contacts in your cell phone?)
  • Have waterproof note-taking equipment (a cell phone in a zip-lock)
  • Carry extra batteries
  • Read and heed the forecasts. Often.

One final reminder: Some 88 percent of all fatalities from hurricanes and tropical storms are from water, not wind.

The Radio Television Digital News Association has put out some other guidelines, aimed more at maintaining quality coverage in the chaos of the event — and managing coverage across multiple digital platforms, including social media. Journalist’s Resource has published some resources for hurricane coverage, as has the Society of Environmental Journalists.

Staying safe while covering floods and extreme water events

Floods take many forms, but remember that they kill more people than hurricanes. As with other extreme weather news events, they breed chaos that you may have to work in.

Some floods can be predicted and planned for — but many can’t. A “flash flood” is a sudden local flood usually caused by heavy rain — and perhaps worsened by drainage systems that are overtaxed or blocked.

One study estimated that flash floods cause 80-90 percent of flood fatalities. With academic dryness, a major article observed: “Findings reveal that human behavior contributes to flood fatality occurrences.” That’s the point.

To help audiences live through floods, journalists need to keep themselves alive first.

Flash floods sometimes happen when big flows of water rise in usually dry or trickling watercourses. This may be worse when upstream catchment basins quickly shed the water rather than absorbing it — because of pavement, saturated soils or impermeable soils.

Trouble often happens at roads that cross streams subject to flash flooding. The flood may overwhelm a bridge or culvert, or a normally dry ford may become unsafe. People want to get somewhere, so they do the unwise thing and try to cross.

The motto, “Turn around, don’t drown,” applies to journalists as well as civilians.

You usually can’t see beneath floodwaters, so it is often impossible to judge their depth accurately. If you drive a car into floodwaters, a depth of 6 to 12 inches is enough to cause problems. Twelve inches will float many cars, depriving them of traction and control. Two feet will wash away many cars. Dozens of people die in flash floods every year, many of them in cars. Journalists are not immune.

Storm surge is another flooding phenomenon that can create problems. In a tropical storm, wind and atmospheric pressure can raise coastal and estuarine waters dozens of feet in fairly short order, taking people by surprise. The National Hurricane Center has mapped areas vulnerable to storm surge. Your local outlet of the National Weather Service will update local predictions.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 3, No. 24. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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