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‘Try to pace yourself’: 3 tips on covering the aftermath of extreme weather events

Reporter St. John Barned-Smith ( Jon Shapley / Houston Chronicle )

After a major breaking news event like the Texas storms, what should local journalists prioritize next in their coverage?

We reached out to reporter St. John Barned-Smith, who covers public safety at the Houston Chronicle, for some ideas.

Following the Texas storms last week, residents are dealing with everything from unsafe drinking water to damage from frozen pipes. What are your top three tips for journalists covering the aftermath of an extreme weather event like this? 

Barned-Smith: A couple of things: These events are pretty exhausting, so when you are covering a breaking news event like this, try to pace yourself. Make sure to get enough rest, eat well and drink plenty of water. It may sound silly, but you aren’t doing yourself or your readers any favors if you’re showing up to work fried.

Give yourself a day of rest. I worked Monday-Sunday on this last storm and on Monday, I was a zombie and could barely function. It’s hard to compartmentalize, and I’m not very good at it, but sometimes that’s what you really have to do.

Remember that the regular news doesn’t stop just because there is bad weather. Today, I worked on an enterprise story about the storm – but also took calls on several non-related stories. Big storms come and go, but don’t let them dissuade you from staying on top of other big stories on your beat. Over the past year, COVID has sucked up a lot of oxygen/attention (and rightly!) but that doesn’t mean you stop reporting the other issues important to your region/readers. So try to maintain a healthy balance on what you’re looking at.

How can journalists avoid missing important stories following a breaking news weather event?

Barned-Smith: Good question, let me know if you find the answer. If you’re a beat reporter, check in on your regular sources during big breaking weather events, and as you finish the conversation, just go with the tried-and-true, “Is there anything else I need to know?” If you’re dealing with a region-wide disaster, chances are your sources are also dealing with it. But if you give them the space to tell you what’s going on, you can probably get some additional tips that might be worth checking up on. 

How do you keep readers engaged with follow-up stories once the immediate danger has passed?

Barned-Smith: Pursue accountability stories that look at broader themes/problems revealed by the storm. During the deep freeze, I wrote about some people struggling to survive. What came out of that story is that the state really doesn’t have adequate mechanisms in place to protect its most vulnerable citizens. When you are pursuing these sorts of stories, ask how the system is SUPPOSED to work, then answer with how it currently works and how it got that way. That can make these sorts of investigations a lot less daunting.

For more tips on natural disaster coverage, read our Q&A with Weather Channel meteorologist Tevin Wooten.

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