Journalists have covered one natural disaster after the other this summer — from deadly wildfires to destructive hurricanes. Climate change means these types of stories will happen more and more often, so how should reporters be thinking about their coverage?
CBS News correspondent Jonathan Vigliotti spoke with the Institute about how he brings empathy to his reporting, gains the trust of people in unfamiliar communities where he is working, and how he weaves climate change into his reporting.
What are your top three tips for covering a natural disaster like the Maui wildfires with empathy?
Vigliotti: Approach victims with care. Listen more, talk less. And forget the deadline.
When I’m launched on an assignment like the wildfire in Lahaina, the first thing I think about when I arrive in a community is, “This is someone’s home.”
Reporting with empathy begins with first respecting this visitor status, and then when someone decides to share their story, take a breath and remember to listen. And listening takes time. If there’s a deadline looming, I’ll wait until I’m done filing a report to start a conversation. I can’t think of anything more hurtful to a survivor, and the heart of a story, than cutting someone off.
How do you get up to speed in a new location when you are not a local?
Vigliotti: The quickest way to get to know a place when you’re not a local is to talk to the locals. I know, big surprise. I get some of the best info and tips when I pick-up a Red Bull (I drink too many a day) at the gas station and speak to the clerk, or when I’m checking into whatever hotel will be serving as a base camp.
What are your tips for holding public officials accountable during and after the disaster?
Vigliotti: If something doesn’t add up, question whoever is in charge of the math. And don’t forget the follow-up.
Immediately after the Lahaina fire, survivors told my producer Christian Duran and me there were no evacuations and sirens (used for all disasters including wildfires) were not activated. Initially, county officials claimed the sirens were knocked offline by the wind and fire. We later learned they not only worked (and there was plenty of time to use them), the man in charge of activating them intentionally chose not to do so.
In a press conference, I asked Herman Andaya, the head of Maui’s Emergency Management Agency, if he regretted his decision and if it “was time he handed over the reins “to someone else.” Andaya defended his background, which did not include emergency management, but did not respond to my question about the sirens. Before he could walk away, I followed up: “But do you regret your decision to not activate the sirens?” His response: “I do not.” That Q&A quickly went viral. He resigned less than 24 hours later.
What is your process for finding sources, both experts and locals, impacted by the disaster?
Vigliotti: Sourcing begins with engagement and trust. In television news, what people say on camera is only a fraction of the whole story and usually by design. I find the best information comes when the camera stops rolling. If someone is not willing or able to say it on camera, don’t push. But do stay engaged. Exchange phone numbers. Seek guidance. Communicate. And what’s said on background stays on background.
Climate change continues to impact communities. What advice do you have for others to incorporate the climate angle into the story?
Vigliotti: It will take time to reduce our carbon footprint and roll back the consequences of human-caused climate change. In the meantime, there are actions communities can take now to protect themselves from future weather threats. Federal and state funding is available to help with this fortification and, in some cases, local governments are dragging their heels.
In Maui, a state-backed 2014 Wildfire Prevention Plan warned of a growing fire risk in and around Lahaina and made suggestions including reducing fuel loads, creating fire breaks, building defensible space, and conserving water. Officials committed to implementing those changes. Federal funding would have helped foot the bill. But nearly a decade later, there’s no documentation showing any of those changes were executed.
How many other communities are running out of time? We should all be asking this question.
Your reporting matters. Share your tips on coverage with The Latest’s readers by emailing [email protected]. We’ll reach out to spotlight your work.