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Tip Sheets

Disaster coverage: Is your newsroom prepared?

Joe Hight, the Edith Kinney Gaylord Chair of Journalism Ethics at the University of Central Oklahoma and former president of the Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma, presents some points for journalists to think about when reporting on disaster and trauma.

Questions for coverage teams ...

  • What are your priorities for continuing coverage, especially in consideration of the three areas? (Think about stages of coverage for each phase.)

  • How will you move the story forward?

  • What factors do you take into account as you choose images and/or video?

  • When will the story not be on Page 1 or lead of broadcast? When will it be Page 1 or lead again?

  • What are your plans for the one-year anniversary? What images will you include in that coverage?

  • How will you deal with issues on your own staff?

Considerations for the future ...

  • Any disaster coverage is No. 1: a people story.

  • Victims should be approached but allowed to say no.

  • Dumb, insensitive mistakes cost years of credibility. The rush for first can be costly to victims, the community and you.

  • Little things count.

  • Profiles of life/examples of how victims lived.

  • Don’t rush for closure.

  • Readers, viewers need outlets, facts instead of speculation, signs of hope through the recovery process.

  • Understand the long-term effects of coverage on journalists.

  • Plan before a disaster occurs (Training, disaster plan).

The modern journalist ...

  • Understands that you can be aggressive, tough and sensitive at the same time.

  • Knows how to treat victims of violence and tragedy.

  • Knows how to be ethical during tragedies.

  • Learns how to take care of themselves.

  • Knows that every newsroom role, from reporter to assignment editor to copy editor to designer to photographer to artist, is important in the coverage of tragedy.

  • Understands the effect of their coverage.

  • Realizes that mistakes in the short term can cause detrimental effects in the long term.

  • Holds themselves to the highest standards during disasters, rather than lower them for the sake of being first.


The Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma offers tips for journalists covering disasters.

Joe Hight is the Edith Kinney Gaylord Chair of Journalism Ethics at the University of Central Oklahoma, a columnist and bookstore owner. He was the editor of The Gazette in Colorado Springs when Dave Philipps and the news organization won the Pulitzer Prize in 2014 for its "Other Than Honorable" series about the plight of soldiers suffering from PTSD and traumatic brain injuries who were being kicked out of the Army without benefits. Previously, he was the director of information and development for the Oklahoman/ In 1995, he led the team of reporters and editors who covered victims of the Oklahoma City bombing. The Oklahoman’s coverage won several national awards, including the Dart Award for Excellence in Coverage of Trauma.