There is something wrong with the way the mainstream broadcast media traditionally covers hurricanes. Big cable TV news channels send out reporters to hold onto swaying palm trees to show us just how strong the winds are. They might interview a native or two whom they chance upon, but they barely know the local layout.
When we see the suffering of the on-air personality, it’s supposed to make us feel bad for them, even if they didn’t really need to be there at all. But slowly the dynamic is changing. The rise of Internet news and blogs gives TV and print journalists a way to get more personal and tell their own stories. At the same time, the voices of locals who know the terrain are being showcased.
The Houston Chronicle was the largest local news organization in the projected path of Hurricane Rita, and its website proved to be the most adept at covering a quickly changing story. Dwight Silverman, the Chronicle’s interactive journalism editor, launched a Rita blog filled with wire stories, reporters’ tidbits and reader-submitted news — similar to the comprehensive news blog at NOLA.com during Katrina.
But Silverman went further, inviting local bloggers to contribute to a Stormwatchers group blog, where each local could give first-hand reports of his or her own neighborhood during the hurricane. When the story became much less about damage in Houston, Silverman adroitly added a Road Home blog to give pertinent traffic details to people returning to the abandoned city. Silverman credits Scott Clark, vice president at HoustonChronicle.com, for coming up with the concepts for the blogs, while Silverman launched and managed them.
“If you go through the Rita blog, you’ll see the early tension, bracing for the worst, the frustration of the evacuation process, riding out the storm, a sense of relief, and so on,” Silverman told me via e-mail. “This came in real time, and the emotions you see reflected there are very real. In addition, the blogs give people information quickly, in nuggets, making it easy to find and digest. The search and categorization features of a blog help as well.”
Beyond Big Media, local bloggers in Houston, Galveston and Beaumont gave us a running account of their Rita experiences, from their travails with traffic gridlock to their photos of wind damage — all with the humor necessary to get on with their lives after the hurricane. One Houston blogger, Laurence Simon, who contributed to the Chronicle’s Stormwatchers blog, railed against the ignorance of the national media on the scene.
“It’s storm porn,” Simon told me. “Quit hyping it, quit standing in the middle of it, and tell people where the shelters are and inform people. Don’t stand out there in the wind. If you’re going to do that, then get an inflatable monkey and put it out there and let it blow around. Anderson Cooper is no better than a crash-test dummy when he’s doing that.”
But Ron Franscell, managing editor for features, sports and presentation at the Beaumont (Texas) Enterprise, was more diplomatic about the national media coverage. “The long-term task of telling a year-long — or longer — story falls to local media,” he wrote in his blog, Under the News. “That’s what we do. The national media, by its nature, bungee-jumps into a situation and out again. While their work is generally laudable, the dirtier work is left to somebody else.”
So after spending the past five days knee-deep in online coverage of Hurricane Rita, here are six lessons I’ve learned about the state of disaster coverage on the Web.
1. Your local bloggers know more than you do.
On September 21, about three days before Rita made landfall, the Chronicle’s Silverman put out a call for local bloggers to contribute to the Stormwatchers blog that was being launched that afternoon. He wanted to have bloggers report from strategic locations around the Houston metro area, and picked them according to geographic location, quality of their blog, and quality of their writing.
Silverman told me he didn’t edit any of the entries, and told the bloggers to post just as they would on their own blogs. The bloggers weren’t compensated in any way, and happily volunteered to help.
“Dwight has a pretty good following in town,” said Simon, who also runs H-Town Blogs. “He’s built up a lot of loyalty with bloggers here. He asks for feedback, checks with them. He comes to blog Meetups that I’ve held to get a feel for what people are looking for. I think he’s done a great job behind the scenes at the Chronicle, getting them comfortable with the fact that things are changing.”
The plan for Stormwatchers seemed to have worked without a hitch, and the result was a great account of all the issues and personal foibles experienced by bloggers on the scene of an evacuated metro area. One post decried the unorganized “Texodus,” while another discussed the possibility of the government paying people to stay behind in future hurricane evacuations. Even though Houston was largely spared, the group blog was a great way to get micro-local reports, colorful details, and it even incorporated comments and requests from readers.
2. Mainstream media gets personal.
As the hurricane approached, it seemed like every local newspaper and TV station had some sort of blog-like roundup on their websites. The Daily News of Galveston County maintained a blog with bite-sized posts containing timely information — including whether the paper would be printed or not. KHOU-TV in Houston maintained a no-nonsense blog with even briefer posts, while rival outlet KTRK-TV had reporters’ notebook blogs for nearly every on-air personality.
In one case, the most compelling story from KPLC-TV in Lake Charles, La., was in a reporter’s notebook by James Zambroski, a visiting journalist from a sister station. “Every single building has some sort of damage,” he wrote of the scene along Highway 27 south of Lake Charles. “The ones standing look like cantaloupes with the seeds scooped out: you see right through them. Cars and pickups flipped and twisted, their tires sticking out of the water. Graves washed open, the famed above-ground burial crypts of Louisiana smashed apart, the slabs now scattered apart like a deck of cards tossed by a loser.”
And even the larger national outfits, like CNN and MSNBC, brought more color and detail to the story through group blogs from reporters and producers. CNN.com once again had an on-the-scene group blog, with reports from Vermilion Parish, La., to Beaumont and Port Arthur, Texas. MSNBC.com tried a different approach, sending a rotating team of two journalists for a running blog that has tracked the aftermath of Katrina and Rita. The blog includes many photos as well as video, and has a much more graphical (and personal) feel than most other mainstream blogs.
3. Dodging a bullet is relative.
The meme that spread quickly about Rita was that the big metro areas of Houston and Galveston were spared and had dodged a big bullet. National reporters on the scene felt the letdown of doing so much preparation for a hurricane that was just average compared to the fury of Katrina. The body count related to Rita so far has been minimal. But while many national outlets have been tempted to move on quickly, bloggers on the scene of the worst devastation have noted that not everyone dodged the bullet.
“If there aren’t pictures right away, people tend to assume everything is fine, and move on,” wrote MSNBC.com’s Bob Sullivan at the on-the-scene blog. “That was part of the problem with Katrina, too — immediately after the storm, because it was downgraded to a Category 4 just before landfall, there were reports that ‘it could have been worse.’ It took a good 24 hours to get out pictures showing the truth, and those turned out to be a critical 24 hours. … On a smaller scale, the same is true here. So before we leave, we’re going to try to get as close as we can to Cameron, and some towns along the way, to make sure there are pictures of these people and these places.”
4. Wikipedia and Flickr showcase citizen journalism at its best.
While it is true that having filters (aka professional editors) does help make sense of a story as big and sprawling and complicated as Hurricane Rita, it is also true that group storytelling can work. Once again, the haphazard community that creates Wikipedia quickly mobilized the most useful online resource for Hurricane Rita as it was unfolding, including rescue efforts, economic effects and links to streaming video from news outlets. Plus, the county-by-county death count was the most comprehensive and up-to-date of any I’ve seen online.
For an unfiltered photostream, Flickr offered up an assortment of digital camera shots from people around Texas and Louisiana. Before the hurricane, the photos included lines for gasoline, traffic gridlock, homes and businesses boarded up, and empty store shelves. Afterward, the imagery switched to sky shots, rainbows, downed trees and damage to homes and businesses.
5. People are both fascinated and scared senseless of howling hurricane winds.
This is what drives so many TV personalities to stand out in the hurricane winds. They want to experience it themselves, and we want to experience it through them. But due to the participatory nature of news these days, bloggers and citizen journalists now feel the need to do the same (dangerous) thing. While many bloggers did evacuate — and kept their readers apprised of their journey out and back in — some stayed behind.
One Houston blogger named Fyre posted reports to Metroblogging Houston about the excitement of his first hurricane. And then when his family tried to lock him in the house so he couldn’t go out to photograph the storm, Fyre just waited for them to fall asleep so he could go out to feel its strength. Of course, Houston didn’t get the worst of it. Still, citizen journos everywhere might eventually tempt fate just to get a good photo posted.
6. Conservative Texas bloggers like their guns and cats.
Captain Jim summed up the situation well on his Smoke on the Water blog, as he evacuated his boat in Galveston Bay and headed out with his two cats and ample weaponry.
“I shall drive away, unwillingly,” he wrote. “But drive I must, if only to not subject the pure love of my two cats to the hell that is due to descend upon these docks in but thirty-six hours time. My course is uncharted, the waters strange and the waves of patterns yet to be learned. … Know just that I shall be safe, I shall have shelter, I shall not want. That, and I’m armed to the freakin’ teeth, and I’ll drop any sonofabitch who even thinks of carjacking the geezermobile. …”