When disaster strikes, first responders are followed by journalists, videographers and photographers from local, regional and national media organizations. While these storytellers provide valuable insights into natural or man-made catastrophes, journalists also risk their lives and sometimes the lives of their subjects in pursuit of up-to-the-minute reporting.

Journalists on the ground relay the immediate effects of disasters, like the San Francisco Chronicle’s Lizzie Johnson reporting on the Camp Fire, the deadliest blaze in California’s history. In addition to writing stories, Johnson spent her free time posting photos and addresses from Paradise, letting residents know if their homes were still standing or burned to ash.

Similar on-the-ground reporting follows every disaster and it can inform how philanthropic agencies respond in the short-, medium- and long-term. But such reporting can come at a cost to journalists. An Australian journalist was recently awarded $180,000 in damages for PTSD, anxiety and depression from “being repeatedly exposed to traumatic events.”

Journalists also need to be aware of the risks involved with interviewing victims, children and youth, and other vulnerable populations in the aftermath of disasters. Programs like the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma can offer guidance and training on how to deal with such situations.

With print journalism facing a collapse of its advertising-driven business model, there has been a significant decline in the number of journalists working today. While staffing is generally sufficient to cover disasters and their immediate aftermath, local media organizations may lack the resources necessary to fully cover preparedness and prevention topics at the local, state and national levels. Few media outlets, even national ones, are able to cover the long-term impacts of a disaster and ongoing recovery challenges in a comprehensive way. Even big anniversary stories, one, five, 10 or 20 years after a disaster strikes, rarely capture the depth and breadth of ongoing needs or recovery efforts.

Key Facts

  • Be wary of initial reports from disasters. Journalists will relay estimates from officials, but those early numbers are almost always inaccurate. A clearer picture comes into view in the days and weeks after disasters.
  • Journalists are people too. At the local level especially, journalists can be just as affected by the disaster as the subjects they’re reporting on.
  • Reporters are accessible and responsive to the public. Journalists are generally willing to discuss how they produce their work and are open to new story angles. They also care about accuracy, but errors, particularly in high-stress situations, do happen. If you know a reporter has published something that is incorrect, let them know in a polite, professional manner.

How to Help

  • Stay informed and share information. There are a number of media sources to help you stay informed about what is happening in the disaster realm. CDP has a weekly blog on current disasters (usually updated on Tuesdays) and regularly blogs about other disaster-related topics. The New Humanitarian (formerly IRIN News, originally the ‘Integrated Regional Information Networks’, left the United Nations in January 2015 to relaunch as an independent, nonprofit media venture) provides regular updates and in-depth stories about disasters around the world. Subscribe to their feed or check out their website.
  • Fund fellowships to train journalists on disaster reporting. Help journalists develop skills to cope with the trauma of reporting on disasters.
  • Support local and regional media organizations. These are the groups best positioned to tell the stories of local disasters. They are also likely to be affected by such disasters. Support can include sponsoring a journalist to work on a specific topic area.
  • Offer grants for topics that are under-reported. Such grants can go to journalists working at news organizations or freelancers.

What Funders Are Doing

Information as Aid Citizen Reporters practice interviewing skills at a training in San Juan. These correspondents serve as the “eyes and ears” for all island residents. (Source: InterNews)
  • Center for Disaster Philanthropy gave $100,000 to Internews Network to support the development of a two-way conversation between the Latino community and local government, media and nonprofit organizations in Sonoma County.
  • CDP’s Hurricane Harvey Recovery Fund also gave The Texas Tribune $50,000 for “Public Service Journalism Covering Hurricane Harvey.” The grant will help the Tribune continue to provide coverage on Hurricane Harvey that is not already being provided by other news outlets – going deeper on policy and infrastructure issues, tracking response in Washington and watching the long-term effects on the economy and the demographics of the region.
  • The New Jersey Recovery Fund gave $150,000 to the NJ Spotlight for a collaborative project with WNYC/New Jersey Public radio combining in-depth accountability journalism with community engagement to chronicle and support New Jersey’s recovery from Hurricane Sandy.
  • National Endowment for Democracy gave nearly $50,000 to Transitions Online in Prague, Czech Republic, to support a workshop on data journalism, which seven participating journalists used to produce 14 investigative articles.

We welcome republication of our content. Please credit the Center for Disaster Philanthropy.

(Photo: 42nd Air Base Wing Commander Colonel Eric Shafa and Eric Shields of FEMA hold a press conference at Base Operations in preparation for Hurricane Irma. Source: US Air Force photo by Melanie Rodgers Cox/Released)