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Columbia Missourian

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

By Joy Mayer
May 24, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CDT

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.