Disaster Reporting in the 21st Century

I think we’re in disasters more often than we used to be.

Anna Kester
Anna Kester

Traditional media have long played a key role in disaster information flows, generating public recognition and understanding of man-made and natural disasters. However, the unprecedented events of 2020 have changed the playbook for disaster reporting. The magnitude and scope of events in 2020 has marked a huge shift in the definition and understanding of disasters. In California, the COVID 19 pandemic combined with devastating record-breaking wildfires, created in effect a ‘disaster within a disaster.’

During the past decade, KQED, the San Francisco PBS and NPR station, has made substantive investments to improve its position as a 21st century media organization. However, like other media outlets in California and elsewhere during 2020, KQED was faced with the enormous challenge of confronting a supercharged news cycle churning out stories quicker than ever before to satisfy consumers’ unprecedented demand for information during this monumental year.

As the external evaluator for a 2020 National Science Foundation (NSF) funded grant to KQED and Texas Tech University researching methods for developing effective COVID-19 media content for young adult audiences, I conducted a year long study with members of the KQED Science news team to explore changes in disaster reporting resulting from the extraordinary events of 2020–2021. In these uncertain times, it is critically important for media organizations, especially those focusing on science, to share knowledge on new practices for researching, reporting, vetting and disseminating accurate and timely information to the public. The goal for this project was to document the experiences and lessons of KQED’s disaster reporting that could lead to practices that could become models not just for science media, but for other informal science organizations across the country who help to inform and educate. The full 20 page Disaster Report can be found on KQED’s website.

This is the first of a multi-part series describing experiences, lessons, and reflections of the KQED science news team during a year of reporting on, and living through disasters unlike any other.

21st century disasters

The world won’t come to an end, but the incidence of disasters will have a very big impact, and in ways we can’t predict.- Sir John Houghton

Disasters not only are increasing in number, but they are qualitatively different in a way that academics have begun to speak of ‘modern disasters’ vs ‘disasters of the 21st century.’ A first general feature of disasters of the 21st century is that they have a more devastating impact on society, with more infrastructures destroyed and more people affected. 21st century disasters have become extremely complex events to manage. An important dimension of this complexity concerns the inconceivable and unknown aspects of these modern disasters. As we’ve seen over the past two years, the limits of impact of several disasters at once are more pervasive and longer term. More recently, the increasing number and intensity of 21st century disasters has led to the emergence of a more hazards-based model, which views disasters in terms of society and community vulnerability and the identification of resources that promote or hinder patterns of social resiliency (Cutter et al. 2003; Laska and Morrow 2006).

Covering science news in the 21st century

During the 21st century we’ve witnessed the merging evolution of traditional and social media as information has moved into the digital era, affecting conventional journalistic practices and presenting new challenges for journalists. Today’s news cycles have become relentless and nonstop. Enthusiast and vertical media outlets clamor for more and fresh content. Over the past decade, breaking news has become an ever more important part of the 24-hour news culture. The concept of breaking news, however, has been somewhat degraded of late, in part because the term is so overused. By most measures breaking news items are less well informed and feature less independent reporting than conventional news items. The pandemic, and to some respect the wildfire, have redefined what it means to cover breaking news in science.

Traditionally, a big part of science news coverage is following what’s happening on the ground, especially with issues dealing with the environment or ecology. As one news editor we spoke with noted, ‘Science news doesn’t break, it oozes.’ Science coverage often centers around trending shifts in the environment, related regulatory issues, or long-term research studies. Generally science reporters have time to study and probe the underlying causes or issues impacting the evolution of a science news story. In 2020 this was not possible. For the KQED science team, it was particularly challenging being a science news reporter in an organization that also has a news department. Communicating science is different from reporting news, which is an uneasy match with science even in the best of times.

The speed and breadth of the wildfires and pandemic and their ever-shifting dimensions challenged existing notions of a single news story as a finished product of work. This transformation caused science reporters to think more long-term in order to find the ‘rhythm’ of a disaster. One reporter compared the disaster writing and investigative processes to the stages of grief.

Coordinating a response

Reporters told us that disaster reporting used to have more structure. A disaster would occur, followed by shock, assessment, recovery, and a hope for a return to some sense of normalcy. What KQED science reporters learned from climate, wildfire and pandemic coverage is that the concept of normalcy is now much more subjective.

I’ve never covered a story with so much critical news coming so fast at us. It wasn’t just news you can use, it was news you must use, as what was initially a science story became a public health story and finally became an everything story. — KQED science news staff

Covering the twin disasters of 2020 required reporters to be more focused. There was a greater need to anticipate the coverage, multitask, and coordinate the seemingly infinite details of a story with other reporters and editors. One reporter we spoke with equated disaster reporting to working in air traffic control. During the most intense times of the pandemic when so much was unknown, many reporters felt their role was simply to differentiate between fact and fiction.

During disasters, time is critical. When disaster news is breaking hour to hour, minute to minute, reporters need to get information out to the public as quickly as possible. As was evident during the 2020 California wildfire season, the stakes can be very high. The public is dependent on time sensitive information to make decisions about their health and families. People want to know how a particular disaster affects them, what the risk is, and how to avoid it. Should they evacuate their homes? Where is it safe to congregate? Information needs to be accurate, but given the speed of fires and the relative uncertainty during these periods, reporters did not have a lot of time to get it done.

During disasters there is always a crisis phase. During the pandemic everything seemed to be a crisis. KQED science reporters were working 12 hour days just to stay on top of even the basic information that was coming out.

You could go to the bathroom and come back and everything changed in just 15 minutes. There would be dramatic new public health orders, counties banding together, counties splitting apart, people dying at rates we’d never seen. We just couldn’t keep up, and we had to cover nine counties. There were individual health orders, along with a confusing array of rules and guidance. Everyone was doing press conferences, health officials, politicians, everyone. One health official would be on, then another health officer would have a competing press conference. I remember once it was like three press conferences at the same time. — KQED science news staff

Disasters represent the increasingly fragile relationships between humans and the natural environment. Disasters have longer term, often unresolvable impacts that require coverage on a more existential level. Reporters commented that stories that help the public navigate the anxiety and confusion of a disaster and that counter misinformation are extremely helpful for audiences.

In these disasters, it’s our responsibility to aid people to understand what’s happening in the bigger picture. These kinds of stories don’t have to do with disaster reporting per se, but I think they are even more crucial than ever right now because we’re living through an existential crisis. — KQED science news staff.

As the magnitude of these 21st century disasters continue to increase, science journalists acknowledge that they must take a greater role to help the public find different ways to cope, and to better understand the broader impact of these disasters on their lives, their communities and the planet.

Next article

In our next article we’ll look at how covering the twin disasters (wildfire and pandemic), and the constant element of risk, forced reporters to adapt their perspective, practice and outlook towards disaster reporting.

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