CNN reporter Rosa Flores may have inadvertently discovered the most passionate media critic to emerge from Hurricane Harvey on Tuesday.
Flores approached the woman, identified only as Danielle, and her young daughter in a Houston shelter and began asking her about the hazards and discomfort they had encountered when the woman unloaded on Flores on live TV:
“She walked through four feet of water to go get them food on the first day,” the woman said, referencing her daughter. “Yeah, that’s a lot of s---. But y’all sitting here, y’all trying to interview people during their worst times. Like, that’s not the smartest thing to do.” (“Sorry,” began Flores.) “Like, people are really breaking down, and y’all sitting here with cameras and microphones trying to ask us, ‘What the f--- is wrong with us?’ (“I’m so sorry. . . . ”) And you’re really trying to understand with the microphone still in my face. When she’s shivering cold and my kid’s wet and you still putting a microphone in my face!”
“Sorry,” said Flores, backing away as the woman appeared ready to burst into tears of rage.
Anchor Jim Acosta broke into the tirade. “Rosa Flores, it sounds like you’ve got a very upset family there,” he said. “We’re going to take a break from that.”
Media coverage of disasters can be like that — wild, uncertain, erratic. Stuff happens that wouldn’t happen if the story didn’t sprawl over hundreds of square miles and involve the lives of millions of people. When there’s chaos near and far, it’s hard to know when an ordinary interview will turn into an act of fury.
CNN found out the hard way that disaster reporting requires a different approach. People are vulnerable and hurting; they’ve lost property, perhaps family, and certainly a sense of safety and privacy, says Bruce Shapiro, director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, a Columbia University project that focuses on disaster and violence reporting. “A disaster of this scale challenges all of our reporting practices,” he said. “Our day-to-day tool kit isn’t always equal to this.”
It wasn’t clear how Flores approached the woman before their interview or what their pre-interview conversation had been. But Shapiro says reporters need to seek “small gestures of permission” from people in such circumstances. Asking for consent and explaining the purpose of an interview can restore a small measure of control to those who’ve lost much of theirs, he says.
(A CNN spokeswoman, Barbara Levin, responded to a question about the encounter with a statement reading, “The people of Houston are going through a very difficult time. Our hearts go out to this woman and her family. Our reporter handled the situation graciously.”)
While it wasn’t hard to relate to the Houston woman’s pain and distress, sustained news coverage of disasters such as Hurricane Harvey largely has a positive effect. News reporting stimulates government relief efforts and private donations. It also inspires heroic volunteers. Some of the most heartening images of the past few days, in fact, have been those of ordinary citizens employing kayaks and other recreational vessels to rescue people from flooded homes.
News coverage also plays a vital social role in a crisis by providing information that can bind a community together. The ways and means are many: stories about heroism or human interest, warnings about ongoing hazards, weather forecasts, details about relief operations, the location of missing people. Shapiro says some New Orleanians wept when the local paper, the Times-Picayune, distributed its first copies to the battered evacuees at the city’s convention center and Superdome after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Nonetheless, misreporting is a constant feature of natural disasters, too. One of the great media-fed myths of Katrina was that criminality, violence and looting swept New Orleans after the breach of the city’s levees. There were apocalyptic stories about snipers shooting at rescue helicopters, roving gangs indiscriminately killing and raping throughout the flooded city, and the Superdome overflowing with dead bodies.
Much of the defective reporting stemmed from exaggerated or wholly inaccurate comments from official sources, including the mayor and police chief, said W. Joseph Campbell, the author of “Getting It Wrong: Debunking the Greatest Myths in American Journalism.”
Because official sources are often themselves shaky amid catastrophe, disaster coverage requires extra restraint and circumspection, said Campbell, a communication professor at American University. “It’s an occasion to be more cautious than ever,” he said. “A good rule of thumb might be to restrict yourself only to what you can see.”
Campbell said he hasn’t seen any “outright phony reporting” from Hurricane Harvey — yet. But there might be some of the inadvisable kind. On Tuesday, ABC News reporter Tom Llamas caught some social-media pushback after he tweeted: “#Breaking: We’re witnessing looting right now at a supermarket in the NE part of Houston & police has just discovered a body nearby.”
Some pointed out that it might not exactly be “looting” for desperate people to take the only available food in sight. But Llamas went on, tweeting that he had “informed police of the looting,” and that Coast Guard and police had responded.
More criticism followed. One website called Llamas’s second comment “the worst tweet in history.” It questioned Llamas’s decision to involve police and then tweet about it. Eventually, Llamas deleted his original tweet and tried to clarify his intent by saying that he was already with police at the time and “mentioned we saw ppl w/faces covered going into a supermarket nearby.”
ABC News had no comment; Llamas had no further tweets on the matter.