The Rice Thresher and its campus-centric coverage of Hurricane Harvey (Part I)

student activity_Youssef Machkhas

Editor’s Note: Coverage of Hurricane Harvey was everywhere, but I wanted to look at it through the eyes of the student media. Far too often, student media gets the cruddy end of the stick or just gets ignored, so I contacted Kelley Lash, the adviser to the Rice Thresher at Rice University to see if she had students interested in sharing their thoughts on their coverage, which you can find here.

Emily and Anna_colAnna Ta, a sophomore from Spring, Texas, and Emily Abdow, a junior from Ellicott City, Maryland, are the paper’s news editors and coordinated their coverage as they also braced for the impact of the storm. Once the storm had finished dumping 50 inches of water in the area, and “the whole shock wore off” (to quote Emily), they had to pour a ton of resources into telling the story even as the city of Houston remained under water. Late last week, they were nice enough to share some thoughts on what they did, why they did it and what they learned in covering one of the country’s largest natural disasters.

As was the case with our UVA Cavalier Daily coverage of the “Unite the Right” march, this is going to take more than one post, so today, we’ll look at the lead up and coverage of the event. Tomorrow, we’ll look at the coverage once the national media moved on to Irma and what the students all learned from their work on covering Harvey

As always, the errors are mine, not the students, so please contact me with any necessary changes or fixes.

A few days before Hurricane Harvey started to really gain steam, the news crew at the Rice Thresher was trying to plan its back-to-school issue, a publication traditionally filled with “while you were gone” news and basic features about the campus.

“We saw a tropical storm brewing and figured we’d get a writer on it just in case it turned out to be something, but we weren’t expecting much,” co-news editor Emily Abdow said in a recent interview. “Because of that, we did have a writer already working on a story, but it was just one.”

Once the hurricane hit, it decimated most of Houston. News reports noted that 60 people died as a result of the storm, which left behind upwards of $180 billion damage in that city alone.

“We were really lucky, is what it boils down to,” co-news editor Anna Ta said. “The surrounding areas were put in really bad situations, with flooding in the medical center, which is about a hundred feet away from where I’m sitting right now, outside of my dorm. Not too far away, people lost almost everything. On Sunday, the worst day I think, the water reached almost four feet on our campus roads in certain spots. But for the most part at Rice, somehow, we were incredibly privileged to not have to worry about too much.”

Due to Rice’s geographic positioning, the university didn’t receive the full brunt of the storm, the editors said. Even so, Harvey did serious damage in the area and students had to deal with the aftermath of what turned out to be a massive amount of water.

“We’re on higher elevation than a lot of Houston and, as a result, we were very lucky during the hurricane,” Abdow said. “I live in an off-campus apartment but it’s close to Rice so that too made it through the hurricane unscathed. Because I have an on-campus meal plan, I crashed on a friend’s couch for a week. It turned out to be a good idea because the street between where I live and Rice did flood, so if I’d stayed at my apartment I would have been stranded without food for several days.”

Once danger passed, the editors knew one reporter on the story wasn’t going to be enough and they also knew they had to shift from “shock” to “storytellers.”

“We shifted into journalism mode by posting updates on our social media pages and starting a live page on our website that automatically updated with our posts,” Abdow said. “Because campus was closed for a week and many parts were flooded, we couldn’t get to our newsroom. We had to do a lot of coordinating remotely but we did hold an impromptu meeting in a dining hall for all those who could make it to talk about all the stories we needed to cover because clearly, the one story we had planned on before the hurricane was no longer enough.”

“Coverage during the storm was a little difficult – our printer flooded and getting to the newsroom itself would’ve been quite difficult,” Ta added. “Anyway, we had no choice but to cancel our print issue that week. We knew we had to cover it though, so the team met and decided what angles we were going to pursue.”

The biggest choice the students made was to focus on how the hurricane mattered to students at Rice, both editors said.

“We steered clear of any sort of ‘general’ blanket stories covering the storm; mostly because all of that was already being reported by the (New York Times), the (Houston) Chronicle, and basically every other major newspaper,” Ta said. “Instead we went after stories that were very Rice-centric. We talked about off-campus students, how students were occupying themselves, volunteering efforts, and RUPD and (Housing and Dining workers) – who had to stay on campus and provide for us during the storm.”

The staff put together a running timeline of events and announcements that related to campus. The writers gathered information on major damage around the university as well as efforts that were being planned to help people recover from the damage.

“We tried to focus on the students by breaking our coverage into a bunch of articles on a wide range of ways the hurricane had affected us,” Abdow said. “I think when piecing all these stories together, the bigger picture is captured as well. We ran stories on how students were crashing on-campus, what kinds of activities students were doing during the storm to stay busy, and how students were organizing demolition teams to break down water damaged houses when it was safe to finally leave campus.

“We also interviewed the Rice University Police Department to include a story on their hard work and how they’d rescued several students during the hurricane and one on the administration who worked tirelessly during the storm. I believe the story we included about students going out and volunteering was helpful for showing that bigger picture because it revealed how the community had been impacted – which was far worse than anywhere on Rice’s campus – and how students were trying to make a difference.”

Understanding both their niche and their audience, the staff members found ways to keep the focus on their campus and their audience.

“Again, we’re not trying to compete with The Times, you know? With a natural disaster of this magnitude, it’s incredibly difficult to pretend we live in a complete bubble, but we wanted to talk about things that were important to specifically Rice,” Ta said. “Luckily, we’re all Rice students, so it’s easier for us to ascertain what that is. We went in with that mindset. Rice students were volunteering to help those who lost almost everything – so that’s what we wrote about. H&D and RUPD had to stay on campus with us for 6 days – so we wrote about that, too. We looked at what the national media was missing and what we were especially equipped to cover.”

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