Nature’s Fury: Covering Natural Disasters

It’s been a crazy year of natural disasters on the news.  From the floods in Texas, to the hurricanes hitting Florida and Puerto Rico, to the wildfires still raging in California, it’s been quite a feat witnessing and covering all of these as a journalist.

Being from California, I’m used to covering wildfires.  But less than 2 weeks into my job here in Florida, Hurricane Irma hit and we were in wall-to-wall coverage.  I’m not going to lie… I was a little freaked out in the beginning.  Here’s a clip I posted on Facebook when Irma’s outer bands were hitting the station the hardest. You can actually hear my coworker say “Welcome to Florida” at the end of it.

But once we got going, the coverage reminded me a lot on what I already knew what to do with fires.  Although hurricanes are very different, as a journalist there are quite a few similarities in covering all types of extreme weather.

5 Tips For Covering Extreme Weather

  1.  Let your pictures tell the story.  Weather is a very visual medium.  Whether you are covering fires, rain, or snow – viewers are tuning in to see it because most of them are watching from inside their homes wondering when it’s going to hit them.  Make use of your liveshots from several locations.  Build a team coverage box showing your reporters are all over your coverage area. If you’re a reporter in the field – interact with the elements (if you can do so safely).  Use the best of the best weather video you get into your newsroom and get it on air.  Viewers like seeing when their pictures and videos you’re always tell them to send get acknowledged.
  2.  Time to let the meteorologists shine.  Extreme weather is not a happy event.  It’s devastating to a lot of people when they lose their homes.  But remember – this is what your meteorologist went to school for and thrives on.  If they are AMS certified, they spent hours on tedious coursework to get that little seal next to their name to show they know what to talk about.  We always love our meteorologists, but the time to put the extra trust in them is during these situations.  If you’re in wall-to-wall coverage, let them have time to breathe.  Trust them when they tell you in your ear “come back to me, I have an update.”  This is when us and the viewers can really count on their expertise.
  3.  Goodbye scripts and rundowns!  Trust me – I get it.  Being a producer, I love having order.  After all, it’s what we’re used to.  But this is not the time to stick to order.  You go in the order your extreme weather dictates and if you’re really paying attention to what’s going on around you, you’ll know in your gut who to go to next. Of course, have a plan and have some breakouts, fullscreens, and supers ready to go.  Which brings me to my next point…
  4.  Staying organized INSIDE and OUTSIDE of the show.  When you’re the booth producer in this, your field crews and anchors need two things from you: 1) Sense of order.  2) Sense of calm.  Despite the craziness going on around them, having you as the calm voice in their ear will make them feel a lot more confident in you and your abilities as a leader.  Know where your crews are at all times – that way you can just tell your anchors “toss to Marissa in Delray Beach.”  Make sure your crews are safe and that their liveshots are good before you go to them.  If you’re not producing in the booth and are in the newsroom helping out with coverage, do all you can to stay organized.  Find out when the next press conference will be.  Make sure your crews are where the action is.  Turn that scanner up to hear the bigger things that agencies are responding to.  Be a leader – whether your inside or outside the booth.
  5.  Find the characters that people can connect with.  We live in a time where most news and weather updates can be found on your smartphone in 140 characters or less.  In times of tragedy and despair,  viewers want a sense of hope.  That guy who lost everything in the fire, yet is still helping hose down his neighbors house.  The guy who risked his life to save a rabbit during the fire (this one actually happened in California and the video went viral).  The firefighter who has been battling the flames for days on end,  and when you ask him how it feels to be a hero, he just humbly says he’s doing his job. As a crew in the field, find these stories of struggle and bring them to light.  As a producer, showcase these stories in your newscasts. That’s the type of emotion you can’t get in a sentence and most of the time, you don’t have to do a lot of digging to find it.

Lastly, as we head into the holidays, I wanted to take a moment to thank our first responders.  We work with police and fire agencies hand-in-hand on these stories to get the coverage out.  I worked at KCOY/KEYT in Santa Barbara and it’s been rough here watching the Thomas Fire coverage for weeks on end destroy one of my favorite places, in what has become the largest wildfire in California history.   Sharing this recent post from them as a thank you to firefighters out there for sacrificing their holidays to keep us safe.


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