Disaster Coverage

When tornadoes strike: Newspapers need a coverage plan

The tornadoes in Van Zandt County last weekend are a reminder of a sobering fact of life for Texas newspapers: When it comes to covering tornadoes, it’s more a matter of when than if.

An average of 1,224 tornadoes touch down every year in the United States, according to a tornado tracking study that reflects the years 1991 through 2015. Texas leads the nation with an average of 146.7. Kansas is next with 92.4, and our Tornado Alley neighbor Oklahoma has 65.4.

May is the peak month for Texas tornadoes – we average 44 during this month alone.

And obviously, when a tornado has just stuck your community or county, it’s too late to figure out how best to mobilize your coverage.

So here’s a guide for your newsroom, to help you plan for when tornadoes strike:

The first thing to do is to talk out the coverage. Everyone should sit down and talk about what you would do and who would do it. And if this is all you do, you’re already ahead of the game. Make a list of what you want to do, and who will do it.

Your tornado coverage team should include everyone. When a tornado hits, there should be no division between advertising and editorial – it’s all hands on deck.

Staff members should also talk with their families to explain that they will have to leave and cover the aftermath, assuming everyone in the family is safe. All staff members should think through what their families will do following a tornado — and make sure they know that this is a major news story that has to be covered.

Maybe you already have a plan – but this is the time to dust it off and go through it with everyone. If you didn’t do the plan within the past three months, it probably needs updating, and every individual staff member needs to know what everyone else is doing.

Next, you have to decide what your coverage philosophy will be. During a tornado, everyone is desperate for information, and your newspaper can become the go-to source for that information.

The first thing you have to do is to decide that you may be a weekly in print, but during this crisis you must go where the people are – and never ask them to wait for information. If you got it, share it.

If you’re going where people are, you’re going be on social media, probably Facebook. Remember: Absolutely nobody – not one single individual in your community – is saying “I can’t wait till the paper comes out on Thursday so I can find out what really happened.”

When the tornado is bearing down on your town, people are on radio and TV. Once it hits, they will be looking to social media to find out what happened. As soon as it’s safe, your staff should be out taking pictures and filing social media updates.

It won’t take long for your photos and information to be shared, and you should see your Facebook Likes spike immediately. If the local Methodist church has opened its fellowship hall for people who are out of their houses, share that on Facebook, along with a picture. If the police chief has announced a curfew, video that announcement and share it. You might even want to use the Facebook Live feature to interview local businesses who are cleaning up.

Some publishers will balk at “giving away” all those photos and information on the tornado. But remember, people don’t care about this stuff several days later, when your paper comes out. What can happen is that readers come to see your newspaper as the one indispensable local information source, and that should carry over to print circulation. If all you do is to collect information and photos for your publication day, people see your entire paper as irrelevant because there’s no new information and no photos they haven’t seen many times on Facebook.

But you also have to be thinking about what you’ll put in that print edition. You may run a roundup story where you summarize the news of the tornado, but your print edition should be mainly follow stories that give additional information that hasn’t been shared on social media.

These follow stories should tell about rebuilding efforts and especially tell the human stories of victims and the first-responder heroes who helped them. Your staff covering the storm should always have, in the back of their minds, the need for these follow stories – so have a board in the office or a place online where ideas for these stories can be shared. And not just reporters – your ad reps may have a great idea on a business that’s rebuilding.

And as these follow stories start coming together, of course, tell your social media audience what’s coming. You can build anticipation for the depth information, the photo stories and the features that your regular print edition will include.

Also following a tornado, keep on the lookout for investigative angles that involve emergency preparedness or even building codes. Here’s a story about construction flaws in Moore, Oklahoma, schools that ran after the Moore tornadoes in 2013.

During times of emergency like this, people see the reality of what we’ve been telling them for years – that our newspaper, in print, online and in social media, is the best source of local news. One reporter who covered a tornado for a community newspaper in Alabama put it this way: “In a crisis like this, people did learn that we were the first place to go for news. We were told that by members of the National Guard that they were following our tweets to figure out where they needed to deploy.”

Unfortunately, much of your coverage will involve people who have experienced significant loss. The managing editor of The Oklahoman, which has had a lot of unfortunate experience in covering tornadoes, offers this advice about interviewing disaster victims:

*Teach your reporters and editors about how to approach and interview victims. Remind them during the coverage.\Emphasize that victims must be treated with dignity and respect.

*Victims should be approached but allowed to say no. If the answer is no, the reporter should leave a card or number so victims can call back later. Oftentimes, the best stories come this way.

*Each victim is an individual and must be treated that way, not just as part of an overall number.

*Little things count. Call victims back to verify facts and quotes. Return photos (if possible, hire runners to get and return photos). Emphasize writing “Profiles of Life” about the victims, instead of the usual stories about how they died.

*Try calling funeral homes or representatives first to connect with a family member. In most cases, victims’ relatives wanted to talk when they realized that the reporter was writing a “Profile of Life.” Some of these led to bigger stories, too. Establish policies that affect your coverage.

*The Oklahoman reporters covered public memorial services for the victims of the bombing and tornado, but not private funerals.

*Don’t re-run the bloody images on anniversaries and key dates. However, consider showing comparison pictures of destruction with current ones on the recovery’s success.

There are a lot of resources to which you can turn to beef up your coverage. Of course, after the disaster hits, it’s too late to familiarize yourself with these. So look them over now, and discuss them when you have your staff meeting to plan for coverage.

After the initial safety concerns, people’s next questions are typically about insurance. The Insurance Information Institute can answer your questions and provide subject matter experts and resources to explain the insurance and economic implications the tornado.

Phone numbers may well be dispersed among reporters. Be sure there is a master list available on your computer system, a list that includes police, fire department, county law enforcement, hospitals, power companies, water office, animal control, towing companies, funeral homes and the county coroner, churches and other relief centers, and the like.

The Journalist’s Toolbox weather page offers lots of links and resources to storms, assistance programs and even apps that can help in your coverage.

One more thing: If a major storm hits your city, you will be getting requests from outside media for interviews with your reporters, for photos, and for information on what’s happening. Decide in advance what your policy will be, and designate someone to field these requests.

Much of the preparation you do for tornadoes can also come in handy for major fires, floods and other disasters. Plan now, and hope you never have to put those plans into motion.

By Kathryn Jones Malone

Kathryn Jones Malone is co-director of the Texas Center for Community Journalism. She began her career as a staff writer at the Corpus Christi Caller-Times, then worked as a staff writer for the Dallas Times Herald and The Dallas Morning News; as a contract writer for The New York Times; as a writer-at-large for Texas Monthly magazine; as editor of the Glen Rose Reporter; and as a freelance writer for numerous state, regional and national magazines. She teaches journalism at Tarleton State University.