DEAR READER: Journalists are a kind of first responder during disaster coverage

Friday, May 24, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 12:58 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Like a lot of people, I spent Monday night glued to my TV and to online news sites, watching the aftermath of a devastating tornado in Moore, Okla.

I lived in Oklahoma for many years and went to college in Norman. Several people dear to me live within a few miles of Moore, and my first priority was checking in — by phone or by Facebook — with each of them.


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They were all lucky — a couple of damaged homes were the worst of it for my friends. I also heard or read stories of close calls. My best friend's two girls go to an elementary school just a few miles south of Moore. They have grown accustomed to hanging out in their tornado shelter the past few years.

Once I had accounted for my people, I processed the event much like many of you probably did, with my heart breaking for the people whose lives had just gotten torn apart. I can hardly bear to think about the parents and the children.

I also was full of gratitude for the first responders — the people who run into tragedy rather than away from it, with a goal of helping people in need.

That definition of first responder most appropriately refers to safety and medical personnel. In my world, though, it also includes journalists.

Journalists in the Oklahoma City area worked around the clock this week, with a sense of urgency that is specific to events of this scale. They worked to keep those of us far away up to date about what was going on at the scene.

But more importantly, they worked to bring needed information to their own neighbors — neighbors who were sleeping in shelters, staying with friends, volunteering in the aftermath or wondering how they could help. I heard so many government or nonprofit officials say during interviews on Monday afternoon that they were getting their information and perspective from news reports, same as everyone else.

With local events such as a tornado, the journalists who have a job to do are also sorting through messes of their own. As one example, of the 117 staff members at The Joplin Globe during the 2011 tornado, 33 lost their homes.

It's easy, and understandable, to question the role journalism plays in a culture where information is everywhere. But imagine navigating a situation like this if there weren't people committed to asking the questions we all have and to being our window into the tragedy.

The Oklahoma tragedy holds another layer of poignancy for me. When I was 20 and a student at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, I covered the Oklahoma City bombing. As managing editor of my campus newspaper, I deployed a staff of reporters and photographers to the scene of the Murrah Building 20 miles north. I also took a few shifts downtown as a reporter, interviewing rescue workers and grieving community members.

I first learned about journalism covering daily news, campus features and state politics. But I truly learned why journalism matters when I took calls in the newsroom from people wondering if we could find out if their Oklahoma family members were safe after the bombing, long before the days of online registries and social networks.

Those days are what I think of first when I hear people question why journalism is worth investing in.

And on Monday, while clinging to the words of people on the scene in Moore, I wondered how many people who don't think of themselves as regular consumers of news were doing the same thing.

I wondered if people who question the need for journalism were also grateful for the news footage, the photos, the questions, the facts and the survival stories. 

If those people find themselves in a conversation about where they get their news, whether they trust journalists or what role journalism has in their lives, I hope they think about what they did when they had vital questions this week.

And what it feels like to want to know something they couldn’t know on their own.

Joy Mayer is the Missourian's director of community outreach.

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Michael Williams May 24, 2013 | 7:44 a.m.

I wondered if people who question the need for journalism were also grateful for the news footage, the photos, the questions, the facts and the survival stories.

Of course they were grateful.

I know of no one who questions the value of journalism. So long as it's journalism and not an agenda.

The story of which you are writing is "neutral", something about which all of us can agree. There is no bias in human tragedy whether it is the Moore, OK tornado, Boston marathon, or 9-11. Journalists certainly have an important role to play in such things but, having said that, I would have significant issues with any reporter who was taking pictures or asking questions while their immediate physical assistance was needed to help someone. At that point, a reporter crosses the line and becomes a gawker. I don't like gawkers much.

There is no agenda in Moore, OK, (although I'm certain one will be found by someone). Hence, the tragedy is an easy one for defense of the role of journalism...simply create the strawman of "those who question the need for journalism" (name one) and then play on the sympathy of "After all we've done for you in this tragedy, how can you question our role?"

It would have been better if you had chosen a harder and divisive topic, one in which your own personal feelings have the opportunity to interfere.

(Report Comment)
Jimmy Bearfield May 24, 2013 | 11:04 a.m.

A lot of us question why TV stations and newspapers from distant markets send people to cover disasters: How often do they dig up an angle that the local and national media haven't already covered?

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frank christian May 24, 2013 | 12:41 p.m.

M. W. - I had recently been thinking of a C-SPAN broadcast, some years ago, of a press briefing by two of the
W. Bush, Labor Dept. We could see the journalistic reporters, they all appeared young and each ended their query with the question, "what can you tell us about the UK. "experiment"? The two from our Labor Dept. never addressed the question and finally apologized, "because we don't know what you are talking about!" It turned out our journalists, were concerned about what the new Cap and Trade energy program was doing to the UK economy!

"I know of no one who questions the value of journalism. So long as it's journalism and not an agenda." Could this bit be construed as a pursuit of "agenda" over journalism?

The two "Bushy's" replied that they do not have time to waste with any UK experiment. We know that the U.S. economy is very fragile and to make sure it keeps producing, requires all our time!.

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Ellis Smith May 24, 2013 | 1:28 p.m.

May we assume that journalistic education hasn't materially changed since the early 1980s when my daughter earned a degree in broadcast journalism? She was advised to report the FACTS, where known, and only the FACTS.

We now have a nightly (5 nights a week) network news broadcast where after each report the ANCHOR in effect TELLS you what are to think about each news item. I don't know whether that's scripted or the woman just can't control herself. That's TV news for idiots, morons and small children. I am probably doing small children a disservice.

Give us the news, as objectively as possible, and let US decide what to make of it. We can easily live without perfection, and as adults we understand imperfection, but we don't want or need incompetence, or speculation dressed up as fact.

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frank christian May 24, 2013 | 2:58 p.m.

Ellis -

"Give us the news, as objectively as possible, and let US decide what to make of it." That is my opinion also, of the way coverage of current events should be presented. I believe we had that honest approach when "news" on the broadcast media was thrown in as a free service. When they found that money could be made, it changed. When they found votes could be swayed, it was all over. I don't even like Fox News "fair and balanced" approach. Fair and balanced only gives both sides an equal opportunity to lie to us.

This AM, Varney and Co. on Fox Business discussed the premise that BO Administration has used IRS to restrict conservatives in their right to participate fully in our national elections and invited a Democratic Strategist to refute the thought. The Varney crew itemized instances with fact. She (the D') spoke well, held the floor for long periods of time and said absolutely nothing, except, your accusations are false and your inability to accept that Obama won the election is your problem. Fair, but balanced?

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Michael Williams May 24, 2013 | 6:49 p.m.

Ellis: "Give us the news, as objectively as possible, and let US decide what to make of it."

News can be biased in two ways:

(1) How you report, and
(2) What you report.

Most media, including the Missourian (especially?), commit both sins.

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Ellis Smith May 25, 2013 | 10:52 a.m.

@ Michael:

Yes, what is included or excluded in news coverage (print or broadcast) is both a problem AND A RESPONSIBILITY for all media. However, beyond that I think it is disgusting to have some snippet of news presented and then have the news anchor "suggest" how you should "interpret" it. I too have a suggestion as to what that particular person can do with her suggestions.

That the media treats its customers as if they were small children is reprehensible; but that too many of those customers now ACT as if they were small children IS A NATIONAL DISASTER.

Attended a high school graduation last night (as a guest): 320 graduating seniors. Nice to see a ceremony begin when the first thing to enter the hall is a Cross, and people aren't "offended" when the words "God" and "Jesus Christ" are spoken. Obviously, this was not a public high school, but it IS one of the two top academically rated high schools in this state. Maybe that suggests something.

(Report Comment)

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