It was 6:05 p.m. on a typical Wednesday in 2007 when disaster struck Minneapolis.
Drivers spanning the I-35W Bridge over the Mississippi river felt a tremendous vibration,
then dropped. "I was driving the car and I screamed when I heard it crack," said Janet
Stately. "It's like it went in slow motion. I heard the crack and I saw the cars going
straight in.”1 The unpredictable event caught Minneapolis off guard. The scene’s first
responders were rescue personnel. Behind them, to spread the word of the shocking
occurrence, came journalists.
News coverage of a disaster is essential to the community. Reporters in the field
must work to actively gather the story in an environment devoid of comfort or safety.
Instead, destruction and tragedy are the standard fare. Journalists must interview sources
who are so immersed in grief they can barely tell their story, and sometimes simply
cannot from the shock. Authorities are weary and tense from the constant pressure to pull
the scene into order and help the victims out of the mess. Injuries plague many of the
victims not claimed by death. And through it all, journalists must determine what
happened, portray it humanely and inform the masses.
Yet the journalist’s role is more complicated than simply to report, write and
photograph. The scene of a disaster is a fragile environment, where careless media
personnel could do more harm than good. Journalists may interfere with rescue
operations, intrude on emotional moments between those on the scene and further aggravate those already suffering from trauma. After the incident, their stories and reports
can mislead, shock or simply disturb readers of all demographics with grotesquely
graphic descriptions of gore, false information and exaggerated language. An untrained,
or uncaring, journalist could be a hazard to society rather than a boon.
Few beats in journalism place as much necessity in a sound sense of journalistic
ethics as that of disaster coverage. The subject has always been relevant for newsrooms;
playing a major role in coverage of 2005’s damage from Hurricane Katrina, 2010’s
earthquake in Haiti and countless other disasters. Just as police and paramedics must be
trained to handle even the most unpredictable events, so must journalists learn how to
cover disasters with ethics intact. Such an understanding is a responsibility of their job.
This study focuses on five key processes of the journalist’s work. It discusses
ethical ways to gain access to the scene, to use authorities as sources, to treat witnesses
and victims, to maintain accuracy and make omissions, and to communicate ethics in the
newsroom. It compares these findings to the ethical principles presented in previous
literature. Ultimately, it will examine how journalists can ethically yet effectively gather
and present the news during the event of a disaster.
Fallen Bridge, Moral Duties: A Study on the Ethical Principles of Disaster Journalism.
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