Five Lessons In Breaking News Reporting Learned From The Joplin Tornadoes

Brian Stelter, usually a media reporter at The New York Times, found himself wearing a different hat last week in the middle of of Joplin, Missouri, where he was covering the tornado destruction.  It was out of the scope of his usual reporting and wasn’t a planned assignment, but he happened to be at an airport when the tornadoes struck and there was a flight to Kansas leaving in 45 minutes. Like a true reporter with a passion for the story, he got a standby ticket and was on his way.

But when hit with the responsibility of completely unexpected breaking news reporting — it was Stelter’s first time coming upon a natural disaster as a reporter — there were lessons to be learned. Stelter published a stream-of-consciousness-style narrative on his Tumblr that outlines the events of his experience as he remembers them, chronologically. The full piece is worth the read. Here are some takeaways from his experience that any newsroom editor should work into their breaking news plans.

1. Always carry extra pens.

It seems simple and straight-forward, but when you need to document information and quotes, and your cell phone battery is dying with no outlets for charging in site, the pen and paper are the most reliable go-to for journalists. It was the first lesson Stelter learned when he arrived in Missouri.

2. Cell reception is no laughing matter.

Stelter lost cell reception as he entered the heart of the disaster, which became a serious problem. He had the following suggestion that any newsroom editor should think about and budget for:

“If I were planning a newsroom’s response to emergencies, I would buy those backpacks that have six or eight wireless cards in them, all connected to different cell tower operators, thereby upping the chances of finding a signal at any given time.”

3. Editors should remotely rewrite reporters’ tweets into stories when cell reception is shoddy.

When WiFi and 3G were absolutely non-existent for Stelter, the only way for him to relay information was via text message, so he tweeted via text instead of through an app. His ability to actually  file copy from a disaster site was difficult. He said it would have been helpful to have “a reporter or editor in New York rewriting the reporters’ tweets and reworking them into the live news story.”

4. Local radio stations can be your ears for local information in natural disasters.

As Stelter drove through Joplin, 97.9 FM and other local radio stations were “his eyes and ears all day.” There, he learned about stories from callers and locations of first aid stations. A tip for anyone covering natural disasters should be to tune into these stations in their cars, or purchase a little portable radio so that cell phone batteries aren’t wasted on listening to the radio with an iPhone app.

5. Think ahead to what the website is going to want and need in a few hours.

As soon as Stelter filed one story, he was ready for the next. Overnight, he worked on figuring out how the mission had changed from search and rescue to search and recovery. He wrote a story about the overnight preparations, with the local McDonald’s (the only place with steady WiFi) serving as his local bureau. By 8 a.m., his story was the new lead on, replacing the story from the night before.