When a natural disaster strikes a community, residents go to shelter. Public safety workers and journalists go to work.
News organizations usually prioritize the safety of reporters in the field during such events. Often, it’s the reporters who will push the limits on safety in order to deliver vital news to the public. Ethical managers talk them out of it.
But there’s no shortage of instances of reporters subjecting themselves to the brutality of nature to report a weather story. Their aim is to show the public the truth about the conditions. Their critics call it reckless showboating.
Several media groups offer published guidelines for keeping journalists safe. The Radio Television Digital News Association, for instance, states: “Journalists should keep in mind that their personal safety comes first. Managers should ask if live coverage in the path of a hurricane or wildfire presents a clear danger to staff, equipment and the public. What’s the value of putting your staff in harm’s way to show that, yes, the wind is blowing?”
Hurricane Ida was the latest example of journalists braving the elements to help keep their communities informed and safe, while at the same time not doing anything that’s dangerous or nuts. Well, let’s amend that to just dangerous. Because getting drenched in a torrent and staggering around in the wind is nuts.
Jack Royer isn’t nuts but he did that during Ida. Royer, an anchor and reporter for CBS 42 in Birmingham and a 2018 University of Alabama grad, spent several days reporting from downtown New Orleans for his station, for Nexstar affiliates around the nation and for Nexstar’s national cable news channel called NewsNation.
He’s primarily a morning news anchor for CBS 42 but considers himself a reporter first. He has asked for assignments like this one. “There is nothing better than being in the middle of a story like that,” he told me.
Royer, the son of longtime and highly respected Birmingham news anchor Mike Royer, said he never felt in danger. He and his crew did some outdoors standup reports, of course, but based themselves primarily in a protective parking deck.
“It only takes one piece of flying debris to remind you that Mother Nature is far more powerful than you are. … We were careful not to stand out in the open for very long.”
That wasn’t merely a safety consideration. “There is nothing that erodes trust in viewers faster than telling them to stay out of the storm but then going out in it yourself,” said Royer, who’s a veteran of tornado coverage, too.
Not to say there weren’t scary moments. On the streets, he and his team ran into floodwaters. All power and streetlights were out and their cellphones barely worked. “We were starting to think about what would happen if we ran out of gas,” he said.
Research indicates that reporting on natural disasters takes not just a physical toll but a mental one as well. That comes from the long hours and stress of that kind of assignment and from the unavoidable effects of seeing devastation and suffering. In one particularly powerful moment, Royer is on camera talking about scenes he has witnessed, including the plight of some of the city’s homeless people. The emotion is obvious on his face and in his voice. He can’t look directly at the camera.
“The toughest part, in some sense, is the people who you can’t help. You see people without a home, pushing shopping carts, having a hard time pulling them. I don’t want to get emotional but it’s challenging when you see these poor people and you can’t help them and they are in the middle of a Category 4. What am I going to do? Roll down the window and say, ‘Hey, you shouldn’t be out here right now’? He has nowhere to go.”
I knew as far back as 2015 that Royer would be an excellent TV journalist, and I hadn’t even seen him on TV at that point. But I had listened to him, still in college, conduct a professional-grade phone interview in the WVUA 23 newsroom on campus. And that’s what matters. I’m sure some narrow-minded bosses of TV news care mostly what you look like and sound like on air, but legitimacy and success, even for anchors, come from knowing how to report and write and from being able to draw on experiences like delivering needed news in the face of a hurricane.
Tom Arenberg is an instructor of news media at the University of Alabama. He worked for The Birmingham News and the Alabama Media Group for 30 years. He published this commentary originally as a post on his blog, The Arenblog.
About News is a BirminghamWatch feature that publishes commentary by those who teach the craft and think about the values and performance of today’s journalism, a civic flashpoint. BirminghamWatch is a member of the Institute for Nonprofit News whose members generally rely on individual gifts, foundation grants and sponsorships to support their work. It also publishes About News articles on Facebook and Twitter and invites readers to join the conversation about their news in those forums.