5 bits of advice for student journalists covering chaos

Over the past month, the level of crime and disaster coverage has really jumped up a notch throughout the country.

We’re running through the alphabet at a pretty brisk pace when it comes to naming hurricanes, with Harvey smashing into Texas and surrounding areas while Irma did serious damage to Florida and many parts of the Deep South.  We had the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville that led to a “Tiki-Torch march” on the University of Virginia campus as well as clashes between racists and counter-protestors that left one woman dead and many more injured.

This week, St. Louis was the epicenter of both peaceful protests and violent outbursts, leading to more than 80 arrests Sunday night. The source of this unrest was the acquittal of Jason Stockley, a white, former St. Louis Police officer who was charged with murdering Anthony Lamar Smith, a black man believed to be selling drugs, in 2011.

Student journalists are frequently at the forefront of these events, covering dangerous situations for their fellow students. The folks at the Rice Thresher talked last week about their experiences covering hurricane damage around their area, and they continue to cover the aftermath of the devastation. The Cav Daily at UVA was in the middle of the chaos both for the march on campus as well as the events that unfolded the next day. A more becomes known about the city’s efforts, the reporters at UVA continue the coverage.  In St. Louis, both the student reporters at St. Louis University and Washington University covered the protests in the wake of the Stockley’s acquittal.

Covering disasters, crime and mayhem can be scary as hell. I spent most of my professional J time on a night desk or the crime beat, so I’ve seen more than a few things that would make a Billy Goat puke. I also have sent student journalists into situations where danger was palpable and fear was inevitable. Based on that background, and the fact it seems likely you might end up covering something like this, here are five simple tips when you need to cover chaos:

  1. Stay Calm: Things can be blowing up all around you or you might never have seen that much blood before in your life. You may be fighting the urge to throw up. I once went to the scene of an accident where a compact car traveling about 50 mph went head on into a compact car traveling 50 mph toward it. A lot of blood and glass. A TV reporter was on the side of the road, throwing up into the weeds, trying to hold it together for a stand up. In floods, you might find dead people or wounded people. Fights break out at protests and violence spills everywhere. (Tim Dodson’s line about the “chemical irritant” in the air during the “Unite the Right” rally sticks in my head when I think of how crazed a scene can get.) Whatever it is, you need to keep your head about you. A panicking reporter is a useless reporter. You need to take a deep breath and focus on the task at hand.
  2. Stay Safe: Police and fire rescue folks are trying to do their job. You are trying to do your job. Sometimes, those needs conflict with each other. Regardless of how important you feel you are, you need to realize that their needs trump your needs at the scene of an accident. In many cases, they put up special tape to keep you out of harm’s way. In other cases, they tell you where to stand or where not to stand. I interviewed a fire chief once who told me that a reporter wanted to get a shot of a burning building and moved too close to the structure. When one of his firefighters chopped into the roof, there was some sort of explosion through one of the windows, thus raining fire, glass and debris on the startled journalist.

    Even when the authorities aren’t there to tell you what to do, you need to make sure you use common sense. Don’t stand in the middle of a hailstorm to do your stand up. Don’t drive into a flood zone and then expect people to bail you out. Whatever it is, you need to make sure you’re safe and sound. A dead reporter isn’t much more useful than a panicking one.

  3. Paranoia is your best friend. Always make sure you are following up your stories on disasters. Things can change in a heartbeat, literally. When a young boy fell into a creek and was clinging to life, a reporter wrote a tale of how the priest was praying with the family and how God would make everything work out well. Unfortunately, as deadline approached, it turns out the kid was taken off of life support and died. A rewrite of that story was critical. Make sure you check back to see the condition of people involved in disasters, the official cause of fires, how many people are actually still without power following a storm and more. The more you worry that things might be changing, the better off your copy will be. In terms of crime, make sure you are sure on the specific charges, the ID and name spelling of anyone accused of anything and that you have slapped attributions on everything that needs one.
  4. Be humane. When you cover bad things, chances are you’ll run into bad people. When someone does something that harms others and you have to go after that person, you should do so with vim and vigor. However, that crime also affects a lot of good people as well. It could be the wife of a guy who she never suspected of running a dog-fighting operation. It might be the sister of a victim who was shot and killed by an under-trained cop. It could be a parent who just identified the body of her only daughter. Life isn’t easy on these people. It’s also true in disaster stories, where people have watched their homes wash away on TV or they just lost everything they ever loved. It’s a horrible event and these people are traumatized. Yes, you are on deadline and yes, the adrenaline is flowing. However, you need to make sure you act in a way that will allow you to live with yourself the next day. The story is fleeting, but if you are insensitive, rude or in some other way problematic, your impact will last a long time.
  5. Take care of yourself. Covering crises will have an impact on you in some way. How exactly? I don’t know and neither will you. I can’t tell you how you will react to seeing a dead body, a tornado-torn neighborhood or a road strewn with auto glass. One of the toughest student journalists I ever knew ended up almost broken covering a story about a garbage collector who died when he was crushed by his own truck. Why that story got her when others didn’t, I don’t know. However, you need to understand that these things have an impact on you. The DART center (www.dartcenter.org) helps journalists deal with the trauma they experience every day, from war to crime and beyond. In the end, you might just need someone to talk to. However, you can’t do your job if you are really messed up. Take the time to take care of yourself.

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