Always be ready to cover a disaster

It’s likely that few journalism students worry about acquiring the skills needed to cover a large-scale disaster, like the earthquake in Haiti, but these situations come on fast and without warning, and are always devastating, so it’s important for even the greenest reporter to be prepared.

Few reporters plan to cover a major disaster, but in the unlikely event that something happens, reporters often find themselves in the thick of it with very little notice. It makes me think of Graeme Smith, whose first day of work at The Globe and Mail (just months after leaving j-school) was September 10, 2001. His second day at work found him in rural Pennsylvania covering the fourth plane crash of the 9/11 attacks. Today I heard of 2009 j-school grad who was on a plane to Haiti to cover the chaos.

It takes a thick skin to report on something like this, and I’ll be the first to admit that if I was sent to cover Haiti, I’d probably break down crying within an hour of touching down (just seeing Michaelle Jean speak about the earthquake yesterday was truly the most heartbreaking thing I’ve ever seen). As a journalist, if there’s one thing this tragedy has made me realize, it’s that I need to be prepared, both practically and emotionally, for the possibility that I might one day be sent on an assignment like this.

Tony Rogers at his Journalism blog posted two great articles recently on covering disasters and writing about disasters. The number one tip he lists? Keep your cool. He writes:

“Disasters are stressful situations. After all, a disaster means something horrible has happened on a very large scale. Many of the people at the scene, especially victims, will be distraught. It’s the reporter’s job in such a situation to keep a cool, clear head.”

Rogers’s guide is quick, short and very non-specific in the way of advice, but it’s a great starting point, and every journalist should have at least that.