Words matter and journalists, more than anyone, should know that. Now’s the time to keep reporters honest, but many covering Harvey showed the media how it’s done.
Journalists can be hard to love. We keep strange hours, and we are forever leaving dinner, abandoning brunch or missing the kids’ baseball games to cover hours-long municipal and political hearings about things that would put most people to sleep. We drink a fair bit. We are foul-mouthed.
And sometimes, we sic the cops on people who are trying to eat during an unprecedented flood and attendant humanitarian disaster. I’m talking, of course, about ABC’s Tom Llamas, whose idea of hot Hurricane Harvey coverage on Tuesday included alerting police to people he believed to be “looting” a Houston supermarket.
Imagine: You’re on the ground reporting on the worst flooding America has ever seen, and you think it’s your journalistic duty to divert the police to protect a few boxes of cereal, or diapers, or aging produce. I can’t fathom it. Neither, thank goodness, could a lot of folks — many of them fellow journalists — who called Llamas out for his unnecessary, cruel and thoroughly non-#BREAKING news tweet.
But now is the time to keep an eye on this kind of coverage. National news reporters are swooping into Houston this week to gather the disaster porn, and it’s incumbent upon news consumers to pay thoughtful attention to the language the media uses when they’re telling hurricane stories.
Take “looting” for example, since Llamas did such a gloriously atrocious job of introducing the subject. Who loots, and who “finds” or “looks for” food when disaster strikes? Evidence suggests that journalists can be prone to giving a semantic pass to white folks, while assuming that people of color are stealing and looting.
And when you hear heartwarming stories of survival, pay attention to who the subjects are. Reporters love to find “good” victims — people who are hard workers, homeowners, model citizens hit by a bit of bad luck. You’re less likely to see a five-minute segment about a person who didn’t have a home to lose in the first place. And undocumented families may be reluctant to give interviews because they’re rightfully afraid of being outed to immigration officials — not because they had any less to lose. First responders will get a lot of deserved attention for rescuing stranded Texans, but there are dozens of regular folks with boats and trucks out there risking their lives for their communities. You should always wonder, when you’re watching and reading the news: Who am I not hearing from in this story, or on this issue?
But so far — and I’ve been following coverage of Harvey nearly nonstop for days now — I have to say that I have not yet been laid low with embarrassment by the way the media has, overall, responded to the storm. Not just because some of my best friends have been doing amazing local reports from the ground, but because we have even seen some shining examples of how the news media can report both accurately and thoughtfully through some truly terrifying situations.
Take, for example, this CNN crew, which helped rescue an elderly couple from their home in Dickinson, Texas. During a live broadcast, correspondent Ed Lavandera advised the studio to cut away during part of the rescue in order to be sensitive to the medical needs of Pam Jones’ mother, who has Alzheimer’s. Reporters are not often so thoughtful; they can be intrusive and demanding when people are suffering. It was a relief to see some goodness, here.
And then there’s KHOU’s Brandi Smith, who along with cameraman Mario Sandoval, kept the news station on air, live from the field, while the folks back at their home base downtown scrambled to escape their flooding studio. In the process, Smith was able to alert rescuers to a trapped truck driver, who was pulled from the flooded vehicle. As the rescue unfolded live, Smith talked about losing the family photos from her desk back in the office flooding, all the while imploring Houstonians to save their own lives at the expense of their own belongings.
Smith showed tremendous composure. I don’t know if I could have done it. And as I watched her live coverage, I couldn’t help but think of the derisive and hateful things Donald Trump has said, and continues to say, about the “fake news” media. About how members of the media don’t love their country; how we lie and mislead for fun and profit. It enrages and saddens me, to think that people like Brandi Smith are out there risking their lives, only to be maligned by a man who can’t keep his thumbs off his phone and his blathering stream-of-unconsciousness to himself.
Journalists are in a precarious position these days, but what I know is that no amount of whining and drivel from the current occupant of the White House will keep them from doing their jobs, from putting themselves in harm’s way so that the rest of us can keep getting the vital rescue and shelter information we need when disaster strikes. That’s not fake news. It’s as real as it gets.
It’s not just about the stories. Journalism is also about who is telling them.
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