Covering an environmental disaster can be difficult for student journalists — not only do they have to work on nailing a really great story, but they have to consider everything from personal safety to dealing with emotionally traumatized sources.
Journalists should not forget the basics when they are in a stressful scenario, said Meg Spratt, director of Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma’s West Academic Program in Seattle.
”In times of trauma, some of the basic reporting things that we learn but can forget in stress situations are crucial,” Spratt said. ”Like being very clear about who you are and who you’re reporting for and how the information will be used so people can be in control if they want their interview used.”
Ann Peters, director of Development and Outreach for the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting in Washington, D.C., suggests having a set of guidelines for dealing with disasters and for individual journalists to take time to think about how they would cover a disaster. She said that a key focus at the Pulitzer Center is showing respect for individual human dignity and minimizing harm.
Journalists need to think carefully in terms of the boundaries between journalistic pursuit and individual rights to privacy, and stressed the importance of being flexible in methodology, Peters said.
”Depending on the situation, you might plan it one way, but once you get there you think, ‘Hmm, it’s not going to work that way.’ So be open-minded about understanding or trying to understand what is going on and it might not play out the way you had envisioned,” Peters said.
Spratt said one aspect of covering a disaster focuses on how a reporter handles seeing difficult things and knowing his or her own reaction. Another focuses on the physical safety of a reporter, such as the need for protective gear.
”I think it’s really fairly common to go into a physically hazardous area and not be prepared because we’re trained as reporters to just go in and not think about it ahead of time,” Spratt said. ”But you’re going to be a better reporter if you take care of yourself better and be able to get the story.”
Peters said to compare what officials are saying on different levels as a way to crosscheck stories between the local, state and national levels, and that student journalists should not be afraid to ask tough questions.
”As a younger journalist, a person might be less confident, so I think it’s not about being cocky but being sure and getting your facts and information beforehand as much as possible,” Peters said. ”Or if you’re unclear about what they’re telling you, just ask them again. Don’t be afraid as well to push, to push them to answer or to clarify.”
Spratt and Peters both encourage journalists to do as much research as possible before going into the field and to really listen to sources.
”Listen carefully and do not go in with preconceived ideas about what your story is going to be or what people are going to say,” Spratt said. ”Let people talk, respect their wishes if they don’t want to talk to you but give them an opening to reach you later if they decide they want to talk. Really handing some control over to the sources so that they feel as comfortable and safe as possible telling things to you.”
By Kelsey Ryan, SPLC staff writer