“You’re still putting a microphone in my face?!”

Before reporting on Hurricane Irma, journalists should reflect on a powerful moment from Hurricane Harvey coverage: criticism from a victim.

The other day in class, I played the video of a CNN reporter interviewing a woman who snaps midway through an interview about how she had finally gotten to shelter after days of coping with Hurricane Harvey. Clearly exhausted and upset when she started answering questions, the woman ended by yelling:

“Y’all try to interview people during their worst times. That’s not the smartest thing to do. People are really breaking down and y’all sitting here with a camera and microphones trying to ask us what the f — — is wrong with us.”

The reporter backed off and seemed unsure of what to do with the microphone. The photographer kept filming. The woman kept yelling:

“Are you really trying to understand with the microphone still in my face? With me shivering cold? With my kids wet? And you’re still putting a microphone in my face?!”

The clip broke my heart for several reasons, which I’ll detail later. More important, I wanted to see what it did to my students, who were winding up their summer in the final part of the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication’s three-part Gateway to Media series required of all of our majors.

For starters, it stunned them into silence. That’s pretty rare in a 76-person lecture class.

Then they wanted to know why a reporter would do that.

We talked about why it’s important to show how regular people are affected by national news events. And I assured them that, according to CNN media reporter Brian Stelter, the reporter had asked the woman if she would agree to go on camera and talk, and that the woman had agreed.

Many of the students thought that was beside the point. The phrase “disaster porn” came up.

The class provided me with a wealth of insight, including these observations:

  • The reporter is wearing a fancy raincoat inside and the woman she is interviewing has nothing. That made the students uncomfortable — and they imagined it made the woman uncomfortable, too, even if she didn’t consciously realize it.
  • The reporter was trying so hard to be comforting to the woman — you can see by how she is touching her shoulder. But how can she comfort her? She’s known her for only a couple of minutes. That feels fake.
  • Unprompted, the students contrasted this with a clip we’d watched earlier, of KHOU’s Brandi Smith broadcasting live while a rescue crew that she’d flagged down saved a truck driver trapped in his rig. At the end of the interview, Smith asked for a hug. That felt real to the students. While her life wasn’t in danger, she was outside in the rain, she had participated by getting help and she had borne witness to the entire thing.
  • The interview turned when the journalist asked the woman about her children.

As I wrote recently, I believe journalism educators need to listen more to our students — just as I believe journalists need to listen more closely to the sources they cover and not ignore criticism that doesn’t fit neatly into their worldview. We can’t discount criticism by saying that people don’t just don’t understand us. That’s not fostering trust in what we do, and what we do is critical for our democracy.

Another student dropped by my office hours the same day. He watched the CNN clip with me and provided a potential solution: “I think she could have asked a better question. The woman is very upset. So rather than be specific, maybe ask her, ‘What would you like people to know about what you’ve been through the past couple of days? That gives her a choice.”

Doing so would give the woman more control of her own story. That’s what had been bothering me, along with this: Was that woman, who was clearly traumatized, truly able to consent to being interviewed on camera, especially live? And did it truly serve the public to get a close-up look at her anguish?

As Julia Dahl wrote in a recent piece for CJR, interactions between journalists and sources favor journalists, who get “tremendous power over their lives,” meaning the lives of the people they interview. She maintains, correctly, that it’s easier to forget that power when you’re aggregating or reporting from the office rather than face-to-face.

But even during in-person encounters, when you’re working to establish a rapport with someone, when you genuinely want to treat someone fairly and be respectful of their situation, it’s tough to think about how much power you may have over someone. I’m not sure I ever did so, not explicitly, when I was a working journalist.

If journalism and communications students are questioning the practice, think about people who don’t aspire to this kind of work. I’m convinced that interactions like this contribute to the historic levels of distrust in mass media and journalism, although these everyday interactions don’t often show up in think pieces about the issue.

As I revise my reporting classes for the upcoming fall term, I’m going to put those concepts and hard questions front and center. I don’t think journalists should stop interviewing victims of natural disasters or other tragedies. But I do think we should reconsider how we do so. And if there are situations and times when we do not.

With Hurricane Irma moving closer and preparations being made, there’s a lot going on in newsrooms right now. But I think taking time to reflect on how to handle situations like this would better serve individual journalists, the craft of journalism and — most important — the public.