Who is Telling Your Story?

Well, the media, right?

Of course they are. When something blows up, they’re the ones that set up their cameras and turn their backs to the devastation for the sake of a backdrop. And after your response has got a hand on things, they’re the ones that come to the press briefing. They are, effectively, telling the story of your disaster.

Many of us worry about the spectacle created by the media, especially in the aftermath of a disaster. See the now famous example of Larimer County, Colorado Sheriff Justin Smith asking members of the media to not film houses burnt by the wildfire. Sometimes our concern is for the mental state of the victims, sometimes it’s to protect the members of the media (how many people have had a reporter walk into a danger zone?), and sometimes it’s because the situation is evolving and covering the process will give a false impression of the situation. In any case, there is a tension between responding agencies and media. They want more access than we feel is okay to give.

(And if you look at it from a selfish/strategic point of view, if we manage media access, we feel that we can control the story. That we can shape the story that the media tells.)

And when there’s a paucity of disaster-related news, we might even be able to control that story. (Though truthfully, I can’t see that ever happening again. Social media and citizen reporting will always ensure that the story is told even without our machinations.) But what about when there’s more disaster than reporters? Well, then it’s a buyer’s market. If your response won’t give access, then they’ll find a town that will.

Fine, you say, we can tell our own story now, at our pace.

Except that might not be such a good thing, as this article, titled No cameras, no national storm help?, tells. The story is about the tiny towns of Moscow, Ohio; Peach Grove, Kentucky; and Henryville, Indiana. Each was hit by tornadoes on March 2, 2012; Henryville the worst. The reporter tells the story of flying to Peach Grove right after the twister touched down, only to be rebuffed by responders, citing the safety of the reporters.

Let me guess, you never heard about the tornado that tore through Peach Grove, did you?

With no access to the scene in Peach Grove, there was no reason to stay. We could not get close enough to tell the human stories of survival and heroism. As a result, few people knew of the dozens of houses destroyed in that one rural neighborhood.

The reporter then went to Moscow, Ohio to cover another touchdown. Even with that, the big story was out of Henryville, where the devastation was greatest. Never heard about Moscow, either, did you? According to the reporter, the media wasn’t given access until several days later.

Who told their story? Did not telling their story affect how they recovered? Did it affect the funding that came their way?

And if you think I’m being a rabble-rouser here, consider what happened in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina:

The media got to the heart of New Orleans long before federal help arrived. But wherever we would point our cameras one day, the help would arrive the next. It was a powerful demonstration of the importance of the news media in times of disaster.

In particular I remember an interchange off I-10 in New Orleans where literally thousands had gathered waiting to be rescued. We showed the pictures of human suffering on the news in New York, and the network picked up the story to share it with the nation.

The next day the interchange was empty. Every single person had been bussed to shelters in Houston. A few days later, the NYPD showed up in Louisiana to help.

The most important part of your disaster might be the story. Be sure you’ve thought through all of the ramifications of not having it told before you stop the media.

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Who is Telling Your Story?

2 thoughts on “Who is Telling Your Story?

  1. I think the media’s role in disaster will slowly become one of amplification … more and more, the story will be told by the people who experience a crisis and the agencies responding to it. Why use the traditional media as in intermediary if you have the ability to occupy the public space yourself ?

    Play possum with the media, blocking access might (and that’s a big if …) work once … but you can’t base your crisis comms plan on that strategy … unless you you plan to go down with the ship ….

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