Covering earthquakes & other tragedies/ Reporting on Earthquakes

Covering earthquakes & other tragedies/ Reporting on earthquakes: A Suggested Guide for Journalists

From: “Tragedies & Journalists” published by the  Dart Center,  a project of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, written by Joe Hight and Frank Smyth (Joe Hight is the president of the Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma’s Executive Committee;  led a team of The Oklahoman reporters that covered the 1995 Oklahoma bombing; the coverage won several national awards; Frank Smyth is a free-lance journalist , contributor to “Crimes of War: What the Public Should Know”, edited by Roy Gutman & David Rieff; Washington representative of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.)

[blog admin’s note: the 40-page primer consists of seven parts: “Interviewing”, “Writing about Victims”, “Your Community”, “The Journalist”, “The Visual Side”, “Management”, “Journalist as First Responder”, “Post-Traumatic-Stress Disorder”. Let’s start with the more immediate: Grappling with your wits upon first arriving at the scene (“the visual side”);  and  news-gathering (“interviewing) ]:

“V.The Visual Side 

“Tips for photojournalists who respond to tragedies:

     “1.Understand that you may be the first to arrive at any scene. You may face dangerous situations and harsh reactions from law enforcement and the public. Stay calm and focused throughout. Be aware that a camera cannot prevent you from being injured. Do not hesitate to leave a scene if it becomes too dangerous. Any supervisor or editor should understand that a person’s life is more important than a photo.


     “2.Treat every victim that you approach at a tragedy with sensitivity, dignity and respect. Do not react harshly to anyone’s response to you. Politely identify yourself before requesting information.

      “3.You will record many bloody images during a tragedy. Ask yourself whether these are important enough for historical purposes or too graphic for your readers or viewers.

      “4.Do everything possible to avoid violating someone’s private grieving. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t record photos of emotion at public scenes. However, do not intrude upon someone’s private property or disturb victims during their grieving process.

      “5.Realize that you are a human being who must take care of your mind. Admit your emotions. Talk about what you witnessed to a trusted peer, friend or spouse. Write about it. Replace horrible images with positive ones. Establish a daily routine of healthful habits. Dr. Elana Newman, a licensed clinical psychologist who conducted a survey of 800 photojournalists, told the National Press Photographers Association convention: “Witnessing death and injury takes its toll, a toll that increases with exposure. The more such assignments photojournalists undertake, the more likely they are to experience psychological consequences.” If your problems become overwhelming, do not hesitate to seek professional counseling.” (Hight and Smyth, 2003)





       “Tips for interviewing victims:

      “1.Always treat victims with dignity and respect – the way you want to be treated in a similar situation. Journalists will always seek to approach survivors, but reporters should do it with sensitivity, including knowing when and how to back off.

       “2.Clearly identify yourself: “I am Joe Hight with The Oklahoman and I am doing a story on Jessica’s life.” Don’t be surprised if you receive a harsh reaction at first, especially from parents of child victims. However, do not respond by reacting harshly.

         “3.You can say you’re sorry for the person’s loss, but never say “I understand” or “I know how you feel.” Don’t be surprised, too, especially when covering acts of political violence, if a subject responds to your apology by saying, “Sorry isn’t good enough.” Remain respectful.

         (blog admin’s note: this 4th item is about interviewing the next-of-kin or friends or colleagues of someone who had died in the disaster)“4.Don’t overwhelm with the hardest questions first. Begin with questions such as, “Can you tell me about Jerry’s life?” Or, “What did Jerry like to do? What were his favorite hobbies?” Then listen!   The worst mistake a reporter can do is to talk too much.

         “5.Be especially careful when interviewing survivors of anyone who is missing, and try to clarify that you seek to profile their lives before they disappeared and not to write their obituaries. If you’re unable to contact the victim or other survivor, try calling a relative or the funeral home to request an interview or obtain comments. If you receive a harsh reaction, leave a phone number or your card and explain that the survivor can call if she or he wants to talk later. This often leads to the best stories.” (Hight and Smyth, 2003)

                 ( to be continued)

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