Chapter 42: Death & disaster, introduction

In this and the next chapter, we give you advice on how to cover sudden events which bring death and destruction to people. In this chapter we explain how to prepare both yourself and your organisation to cope with any emergency. In the next chapter we talk about how to get to the scene, what to do there, how to write reports and get them back to your newsroom, and how to organise news staff efficiently. Finally, we discuss the sensitivity needed when reporting death and disaster.

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There are certain major events which are newsworthy because they bring sudden tragedy to the lives of numerous people. In many cases, these tragedies involve widespread death and destruction. They usually happen unexpectedly or with very little warning. They include such major misfortunes as serious road accidents, mass murders, chemical explosions or natural disasters such as earthquakes, storms and floods. Sometimes circumstances may resemble a war, though the difficulties and dangers of war reporting are such that it should never be undertaken by new or inexperienced journalists. War reporting may seem like an adventure to inexperienced journalists but they seldom provide a professional service to their readers, listeners or viewers.

These events may continue long enough to report on while they are still happening (such as a flood), or they may be finished by the time you become aware of them (such as a mass murder). In either case, the effects usually continue long after the event itself is over, for example in rescues, repairs or manhunts.

These kinds of events are a special challenge for journalists. You have to work quickly, often under very difficult circumstances, to bring accurate information to readers or listeners who are eager for details. When these events are big, more people want to know.

Gossip and rumours about the event will spread, so you should gather and publish the facts as soon as possible to avoid misunderstanding and possible panic. If there really is good reason for people to take action - such as an epidemic - they need to know how serious the situation is and what they must do to protect themselves and their families.

Death and disaster stories are centred on actual events and - like the best news stories - involve people. They are human interest stories, but you still have to ask whether they are news.

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Is it news?

Remind yourself at this point what news is. You must ask yourself about any event: "Is it new, unusual, interesting, significant and about people?"

Remember too that closeness and personal impact are important in deciding what is news. Of course, an earthquake in your country is going to be more newsworthy than if it had happened half-way across the world, but both could be news to your readers or listeners.

The way people die also makes some deaths more newsworthy than others. A child killed in a car crash is usually more newsworthy than a child who dies of a childhood disease (unless the disease itself is unusual and newsworthy).

The identity of victims also influences newsworthiness. Everyone dies, but if the Prime Minister dies, that is news. It may be harder to decide which deaths are newsworthy in big communities where death is common than in small communities where it is rare. In small communities, you might need to report every death. You have to decide how newsworthy death is in your society and how serious an event must be before it is worth reporting. (See Chapter 1: What is news?)

Although we give death and disaster separate chapters, the skills needed are similar to those in most other areas of journalism. There is the same need for accuracy and detail, the same need to have good contacts who will tell you of deaths and disasters as soon as they happen.

On top of this, you will also need to work very fast. This is made easy if you are prepared.

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Advance planning

Because most deaths and disasters happen without warning, you should always be prepared, otherwise you will find yourself in chaos and may miss reporting opportunities. For example, unless you keep the batteries in your tape recorder charged, you might miss an important interview. If you do not keep enough petrol in your vehicle, you might not be able to get to the scene of a disaster. You should prepare by thinking ahead and setting up a system which you can use whenever the first reports of a disaster reach your newsroom.

Also, disasters usually cause their own confusion: facts are not clear; people are confused; communications such as telephones may be overloaded or not working; transport may be disrupted. If you have already prepared for such problems and know how to overcome them, your job will be much easier and far more effective.

If you and your organisation have not prepared plans for dealing with emergencies such as death and disaster, start now. The following are some areas you can work on.

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Contacts

You need good contacts, people who can alert you as soon as the event begins and give you information while it is happening and in the aftermath.

The best contacts will be people in the emergency services and in communications. They do not need to be the heads of organisations, who are sometimes too busy at the start of any emergency to think about calling you. But they must be key people. Police, ambulance and fire service radio operators are good contacts, because they can alert you as soon as they have sent their crews to the scene. Someone in the control tower of the airport or in the harbour master's office could be useful, as could the staff in the accident and emergency units of the hospitals in your area.

Think about which services will respond to any major emergency and find key contacts in each organisation. Although one person might be enough in any organisation, it is safer to establish contacts with, for example, the whole team of radio operators, in case they work shift duties.

To make good contacts, you need to know the people by name. You need to spend some time talking to them when they are not busy. Arrange to visit their control room and chat with them over a cup of tea. Exchange telephone numbers and make sure that the number of the direct line into your newsroom is placed somewhere prominent in their control room before you end your visit. If you have more than one telephone line into your newsroom, give them as many numbers as possible. If they try to phone you in the middle of an emergency and find your telephone engaged, they may not have the chance to phone again. Give your home telephone number to good contacts, so that they can alert you at any time.

You do not need to ring your contacts every day or even every week. After all, you need them when there are emergencies. Telephone or visit them occasionally to remind them you are still around. Ask how they are and maybe chat about family or mutual interests such as sport.

Do things for them, such as inviting them to office parties or sending them a card or little gifts at Christmas or a special festival. If they are interested in sport, telephone them with the results of some major sporting event before it becomes news, to make them feel special.

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Liaison with emergency services

As well as good contacts to tip you off about emergencies, your news organisation should get together with the emergency services at an official level to work out ways to help each other in an emergency. Rescue services may not like people getting in their way during an emergency, but they should also recognise the media’s value in keeping people informed, passing on warnings or appealing for help from the public, such as appeals for witnesses or for blood donors.

Meet senior officers such as the police commissioner or his emergency planning officer and discuss ways of cooperating. Some important issues might be:

  • Special access to the scene of the emergency. Perhaps reporters can be given identification badges and car stickers so that the emergency service staff will let them through.
  • Most major airports have agreements with reporters about access in emergencies. Some of them nominate a special gate on the airport boundary where only reporters can enter. They may make some telephones specially available to reporters.
  • Is there one officer whose job will be to keep reporters informed about what is happening at the scene of the emergency? This could be their press officer, perhaps even an assistant to the senior officer at the scene. It is always good to have a name you can ask for at the scene.
  • How can you best communicate with the emergency services during a crisis? Are there special telephone numbers you can use? Are there any radio frequencies you can listen to? In the case of a major disaster, will they give you details of a special telephone number which friends and relatives of possible victims can ring to find out details about their loved ones?
  • Do the emergency services need your cooperation? Can some procedures be established to help you both to do your jobs more efficiently? In some cities, for example, there is an agreement between the media and the emergency services that there will be no broadcast of news about a major aircraft emergency for the first half-hour. This gives the emergency services (and reporters) time to get to the scene of the emergency before the roads become blocked with sightseers.

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Prepare yourself

You must be prepared to go into action straight away in an emergency. For example, you should always have a small bag packed with the things you will need if you have to overnight away from home. If you think there is a chance of being sent overseas to report on disasters or other sudden major events, make sure your passport is always up-to-date.

For your news organisation, preparation might include:

Emergency procedure book

This is a book which is kept on the newsdesk and contains:

  • Instructions on what to do and who to contact in an emergency;
  • Lists of useful telephone numbers;
  • Details of any special arrangements that have already been made with the emergency services;
  • Guidance on how to prepare stories. In radio and television stations, this could also include instructions on how to write news flashes and when to interrupt programs with news updates (see Chapters 48 and 49 on radio and television).
Staff

You should always have someone on duty or on-call in case of emergencies. There can be a duty roster, with reporters taking it in turns to be on duty. They do not have to be in the newsroom all the time, but they must be somewhere where they can be contacted. This is why it is important that the emergency services control rooms should have the home telephone numbers of certain key people in your organisation. If you cannot give them the phone numbers of duty reporters, the emergency services should at least have the home telephone numbers of the editor, the news editor or the chief of staff. If the duty reporter is going to be out of the house, they must leave instructions on how to be contacted in an emergency. In some organisations, the duty reporter has to ring the emergency services every few hours to check whether anything is happening.

The duty reporter should have clear instructions (written in the procedure book) on who to contact within your organisation. In major disasters, even the general manager will need to be informed, but in smaller emergencies - such as bad road accidents - perhaps only the news editor needs to be told. Set up a chain of command so that, for example, the duty reporter tells the news editor. The news editor decides whether to tell the editor. The editor decides whether to call the general manager to authorise a special edition and call in the necessary printing staff or – in the case of radio and television – change scheduled programming.

There should also be a system for getting staff to work in a major disaster. If an aeroplane crashes in the middle of the city, you will want all available staff to get to work. Newspapers may want to start a special edition, so you will need everyone from secretaries through to printers and delivery drivers. All of this should be planned in advance and written down, with copies to everyone concerned. Do not expect the duty journalist to start telephoning every printer; the duty reporter should ring the person responsible for news staff, who should then alert the people in charge of other areas.

Radio and television stations may need technicians to come in to produce extra programs or to set up an outside broadcast.

Equipment

Your equipment must always be ready for use. A good journalist should always have a notebook and pens (or sharp pencils) handy. If you use a tape recorder or camera, keep the batteries fully charged. Photographers and TV camera crews must always keep batteries for their cameras and lights charged too, and have a supply of clean lens cloths and several sets of film or memory cards. If your organisation uses mobile telephones, two-way radios or laptop computers, check these batteries too. You should know how far the range of the mobile phone, radio or wireless modem extends in the place where you will be working. Always double check that your equipment is working properly before you leave your home or office - and take spare batteries and tapes.

Whenever you cover emergencies, you should carry watertight plastic bags in case you have to take your notebook, camera or tape recorder into wet conditions, such as in a storm or at the scene of a fire. If you think conditions at the scene of the emergency could be wet, cold or dirty, take a waterproof coat with you.

Make sure there is always enough fuel in your car. As you rush out of the door to your assignment, pick up a soft drink and some high energy food such as chocolate or muesli bars. You might not get anything else to eat for several hours. Always carry some money and have enough coins for telephone calls, even though you might be able to make reverse charge telephone calls back to your newsroom.

Try to think of other things you may need to deal with any situation you find. You may need to carry a small shoulder bag for your equipment and supplies, or get a jacket which has several big pockets.

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TO SUMMARISE:

You and your organisation must be well prepared; you must establish emergency procedures before they are needed

Good contacts with the emergency services are vital

Regularly check all equipment, to make sure that it is working properly

Regularly check that you are ready to respond at short notice

This is the end of the first part of this two-part section on death and disaster. If you now want to read on, follow this link to the second section, Chapter 43: Reporting death and disaster

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Index to Chapter 42
  1. Is it news?
  2. Advance planning
  3. Contacts
  4. Liaison with emergency services
  5. Prepare yourself
  6. To summarise
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