Journalism During Crisis

A tornado hit Northeastern Pennsylvania pretty hard last night. As a former news photographer/photojournalist, my inkling when I see disasters is to run in and get footage. Last night I didn’t. Not out of fear, I’m from the midwest and know tornados well. I’m not tied to a news outlet or working on a story, so the was no need to be there. I figured there would be enough journalist to cover the evening’s events and I’d leave it to the working professionals.

During the evening, while first responders and crews were working to clear the area and check for trapped individuals, there was a buzz on social media. People wanted to know about building damage, Injured people ,and the animals at PetSmart. This is normal fare, what followed, isn’t.

In the aftermath, what I saw was a disheartening intersection of technology and citizen journalism. Citizens wanted to ‘report’ what was happening. People showed up with their cell phones and DSLR’s and wanted to ‘do their part’. Even local online entertainment outlets sent photographers to get ‘exclusive’ photos for their websites. The drive to get likes and views on social media and get the scoop on the ‘mainstream media’ led to foolish lapses in judgment. By midnight there were calls for people to stay away. First responders still needed to clear downed power lines, broken gas manes, uprooted trees and debris before they could assess the damage. Now crews had to worry about shewing non-essential personnel away and cleaning up after the storm.

The next morning brought out the drones. Professional and enthusiast alike couldn’t wait to get their chance to show their “coverage” to the world. Flying over the damaged areas and streaming live to Facebook to hundreds of info-starved viewers. They were filling a need. A void even, left by the cheap or late to the punch mainstream media that either didn’t have drones or hadn’t started shooting yet.

While it may seem great to have this stream of up to the minute information from people willing to risk their lives to share it with a hungry audience, no one factored in two important things. First, what if someone gets hurt? Drone falls out of the sky, power line snaps, tree tumbles and there sits Joe the amateur photographer. Who’s to blame? Now first responders have to shift focus and deal with an unnecessary issue. Sure, the same could happen to a journalist, but it’s less likely.  Their job is to be aware, listen to those in charge, and know where they cannot go. They’re not looking for the scoop, they’re looking to tell the story.

Which is the second point, what’s the story? Many tech enthusiasts and citizens journalist have plenty of equipment and time on their hands, but what story are they telling? How are they putting context to the images you’re seeing. Are they telling you the ACTUAL story? Many spoke of the tornado before it was ruled as such. It matters whether it was wind damage or a tornado, a journalist knows that. A journalist takes the time to get the story and do their best to get it right. Seeing footage and damage of photos, with no context is just voyeurism. You’re not consuming news or being and concerned citizen, you’re being a nosey neighbor.

A journalist also knows not to provide an opinion or editorialize the situation. Having a narrator say the damage a store received was ok because of a personal beef with them is unacceptable. It feeds the voyeuristic and negative social attitudes that are becoming commonplace and making it harder to appreciate when real journalism happens.

Being nosey and wanting information is human nature, but waiting for the actual story, from actual journalist used to be human nature too. 

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