A raging wildfire consumes the forest next to Highway 63 twenty four kilometres south of Fort McMurray in May 2016. Photo courtesy Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta.

Why journalists need to start preparing to cover natural disasters now

As global warming increases chances of violent weather, reporters need to prepare for the likelihood they will cover one, or more, during their career. This story was funded by the J-Source Patreon campaign. By Jessica Patterson It’s not a memory easily forgotten. Kevin Rushworth, the editor of The High River Times, a small Alberta community newspaper,…

As global warming increases chances of violent weather, reporters need to prepare for the likelihood they will cover one, or more, during their career.

This story was funded by the J-Source Patreon campaign.

By Jessica Patterson

It’s not a memory easily forgotten.

Kevin Rushworth, the editor of The High River Times, a small Alberta community newspaper, was stranded for nearly an hour June 20, 2013. That day, rivers rose in southern Alberta, flooding towns and cities, wiping out roads, destroying homes and rearranging people’s lives.

Rushworth was in Wallaceville, one of High River, Alta.’s oldest neighbourhoods, abutting the Highwood River on the north side of Centre Street bridge.

“I wanted to get pictures, so I immediately went to Wallaceville, which is the lowest part of town,” he explained. “I didn’t know that the official evacuation had already been done, and the ones standing around weren’t going to leave if anything happened.”

Within half an hour, the angry river poured into homes in Wallaceville and cut off Rushworth’s two escape routes.

“I had a foot to stand on, pressed up against somebody’s house,” Rushworth said. “I’ve never been more afraid in my life, because I thought I was going to drown.

“As soon as I knew the danger I was in, I stayed clear from wading through the streets trying to get shots when I had no idea what was coming next. You weren’t sure if a street was dry one second would be flooded the next.”

If a recent study by the American Meteorological Society proves correct, a growing number of journalists may soon find themselves in Rushworth’s shoes. As the impacts of climate change play out across North America, how well prepared will they be to cover natural disasters?

Rushworth ended up being evacuated out of Wallaceville on a front-end loader, one of 13,000 evacuated from the small ranching town, 20 minutes south of Calgary. By the end of the day, he’d lost his car, the High River Times building, and his apartment, which he’d only been in for two weeks.

In the weeks after, Rushworth and his staff continued to report on the situation, from the places they’d been evacuated to—the Calgary Sun office, from the publisher’s kitchen table, and finally, a temporary office.

Rushworth said while everyone in town knew flooding could happen, they didn’t expect it to the extent that it did. Nothing could have prepared him for what he experienced, he said.

“It’s impossible,” he said. “To be ready for it, I think you have to know what you’re doing at a base level and go day by day. Ask yourself; did I do a good job? And if the answer is yes, that’s all you can do.”

“Droughts will intensify, heat waves will increase in length and frequency, and heavy precipitation will also increase.”

As a major news event, natural disaster coverage can be a complex assignment for even seasoned reporters.  Natural disasters unfold in real time, have associated dangers and risks, and can be enormously stressful.

According to the Canadian Disaster Database, since 2006, there have been 174 natural disasters in Canada including droughts, epidemics, earthquakes, floods, heat waves, hurricanes, landslides, storms and severe thunderstorms, winter storms, tornados and wildfires.

Human activities are influencing climate around the world. In “Explaining Extreme Events of 2014 from a Climate Perspective,” by the American Meteorological Society, 32 groups of scientists from around the world investigated 28 extreme weather events in 2014, and concluded over half of them were linked to “human-caused climate change.”

This aligns with a recent Special Report on Extreme Events and Disasters from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a collaborative effort by 220 authors in 62 countries, which suggests that human-caused climate change influences climate-and weather-related risk. There is evidence that droughts will intensify, heat waves will increase in length and frequency, and heavy precipitation will also increase.—which means the likelihood that Canadian journalists will find themselves reporting on natural disasters at least once, if not more, during their career is very strong. As resources continue to dwindle in the industry, reporters may lack preparation to cover these events, resulting in mental and physical stress.

“We get there early. We see all of the bad stuff.”

A journalist’s job is stressful, but journalists covering natural disasters face stresses that go beyond normal working conditions. Journalists may be working in dangerous conditions or putting themselves in physical danger. They may experience exhaustion, emotional strain, and crises of conscience.

“Firefighters, police officers, paramedics, all of these people have some of the same problems journalists face, because in a sense we’re all first responders,” said Cliff Lonsdale, president of the Canadian Journalism Forum on Violence and Trauma. “We get there early. We see all of the bad stuff. And, then we filter it for other people. And some of that is going to rub off on you.”

One of the first things journalists may experience when covering a natural disaster is exhaustion, according to Lonsdale. “There’s huge pressure on the journalist to keep filing, to keep finding new bits, so there isn’t that kind of downtime and time for reflection that we might have had in earlier years,” he said.

Braden Malsbury would know. In 2011, Malsbury was working at CTV Yorkton in Saskatchewan as a video journalist. Malsbury, a broadcasting graduate from the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology, shot and edited his own video and anchored at the station. His job led him all over southern Saskatchewan. That year, extensive flooding hit Estevan and area on June 17—Malsbury was sent to cover it.

Estevan is situated on the Souris River, and in what was called the wettest May-June since 1945, flooding caused by significant rainfall resulted in the evacuation of over 350 residents from a trailer park in Estevan, and the devastation of the local football field, the Souris Valley Theatre and Woodlawn Regional Park.

“I covered flooding for a week straight,” he said over the phone from La Ronge, where he now works as a sports broadcaster for Missinipi Broadcasting Corporation.

Malsbury also reported on the 2011 flood from a nearby village called Roche Percee, where flooding caused 150 residents to be evacuated, talking with residents who’d been evacuated and lost everything.

He had some intense moments, like when he went out on a boat to get some shots of the Roche Percee flooding. They didn’t have enough life jackets to go around. “I decided to go anyway, because I was stupid and wanted the shots,” he said. The boat, he added, ended up being sucked into a current. “I could have ended up in the water with my camera and no life jacket.”

He worked long hours—16-20 hours a day —trying to cover multiple stories. “I’d do a story and then go out at night and try to do another story,” he explained.

That was not Malsbury’s last natural disaster. He was in Medicine Hat working for CHAT-TV as a sports anchor when parts of that city flooded in 2013, and in La Ronge in the summer of 2015 when wildfires threatened that northern Saskatchewan town.

“The whole idea that we are somehow Teflon, that we don’t absorb stuff—that’s around us is nonsense.”

He didn’t feel he needed additional supports, like counselling provided by his employer, at the time. He found other ways to come down from the intensity and exhaustion of covering the disaster.

After, Malsbury took time off to relax, hang out with friends and take his mind off his work. He said his experiences made him a better reporter, but also made him not want to cover news after that. “You go from covering a flood to covering something like a cheque presentation, it’s pretty anticlimactic. After covering the floods, most stories were pretty boring, and I wanted to get into sports.”

Reporters will respond to disaster situations in different ways. “The whole idea that we are somehow Teflon, that we don’t absorb stuff—that’s around us is nonsense,” Lonsdale said. “We may think we’re putting it all away and being terribly professional. We are all affected by what we see. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a car crash, a war zone or a natural disaster. All of these situations have an impact on us.”

Current evidence suggests that, under the right circumstances, anyone can develop PTSD or other operational stress injuries, according to Nicholas Carleton, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Regina.

“The preponderance of evidence suggests that PTSD symptoms can develop from direct or vicarious exposure to a variety of trauma, which makes me fairly confident in saying that journalists, like everyone else, may develop PTSD symptoms from covering any kind of trauma,” said Carleton, whose research interests include anxiety disorders, PTSD and traumatic stress.

Carleton suggested journalists should begin to have conversations about beneficial resources, which might include educational seminars given by qualified experts and enhanced employee assistance programs.

Lonsdale agrees the profession needs to open new conversations about disaster reportage.

“I think you have to figure out ways of dealing with it, and the first way of dealing with it is to talk to colleagues about it, because they’re going through it as well,” he said. In addition to mental stress, reporters are often placed in physical danger while reporting on natural disasters—danger they may not be prepared for.

“It’s actually more of a feeling of awe than fear.”

Edmonton Journal reporter Dave Lazzarino covered the 2015 Fort McMurray wildfire. Normally on the city beat, Lazzarino was sent mid-week to Fort McMurray, a city of 78,000 in the middle of the Athabasca oil sands.

“I hopped into a car with another one of our columnists. We (went) up to Lac La Biche, spent the night… and the next day we rented a car and went up to the roadblock as north as you could get,” he recalled.

Lazzarino hung around the roadblock for two days. “At one point, the winds picked up, moving east across the highway and within a few minutes, I saw the fire move across the highway and then across the highway again,” he said.

“Just realizing the speed at which it could move was a little bit unnerving, because you realize the size of it, and it’s actually more of a feeling of awe than fear… until you put yourself in the middle of it, and it wraps around the whole area, and then maybe you’re a little bit nervous now.”

It was also dangerous to breathe. The RCMP officers in front of Lazzarino had sealed P100 masks on. “You can tell they’re the good masks, they have filters and are sealed to their faces,” he said. “And, then you see some journalists with flimsy hospital-type masks that they give you when you head into the intensive care ward, which doesn’t do much other than keep sneezes off people, and then I’m sitting there with nothing.”

The risk didn’t sink in until after Lazzarino got back to Edmonton and had done some reporting on the health effects of the smoke, which had, by that point, drifted down and hazily settled on the city.

“We don’t send people to war zones anymore, if we’re reputable organizations, without sending them on a hostile environment training course,” Lonsdale pointed out. “(Yet) we don’t send people on courses to deal with forest fires, or floods, or earthquakes. We tend to hope that they’ll pick up the safety stuff by osmosis.”

In practice, this is difficult because natural disasters are by their nature unpredictable and break suddenly, Lonsdale said. “You don’t come into work in the morning knowing that at noon, we’re going to go off and cover a forest fire. It happens and you’re out the door. Probably wearing the wrong shoes.”

Lonsdale says part of that is the responsibility of the people assigning reporters to make sure they’ve got some form of training or familiarity with these types of circumstances.

According to Lonsdale, journalism schools don’t generally teach enough about personal safery. It’s changing slowly, but it’s still treated too much like an add-on to the curriculum. “Safety shouldn’t be an add-on, risk-awareness should not be an add-on, it shouldn’t be extra-curricular, it should be part of the regular curriculum,” he said.

“Your job is to tell the world about this so that help comes.”

Journalists may also have a crisis of conscience.

The fire wasn’t the most emotionally draining for Lazzarino—it was the afterwards, speaking with evacuees and telling their stories. “You’re typing it out and there’s this – you get choked up thinking about these people who have nothing, and you feel, ‘Aww shit, I should have helped them,’” he said. “You think, ‘Another story about an evacuee? Another story about a person having to drive through a wall of flames? Another story about people trying to get in touch with their kids?’ After a while, it just drains on you.”

“There’s usually a feeling on the part of the reporter that some aspect of what they’re doing here doesn’t feel right,” Lonsdale said. “It’s like I’m a vulture and these poor people have had terrible experiences… and here I am, just trying to report… it’s very hard in those circumstances not to feel that you are playing on people’s distress.”

Instead of putting down the notebook, journalists should continue to do their jobs, Lonsdale said. While it’s human instinct to join the rescue effort, “your job isn’t to roll up your sleeves,” he said. “Your job is to tell the world about this so that help comes.

“If you ever find yourself in a difficult circumstance, reach out to people.”

The consequences of facing these types of stresses can lead to a decline in reporter mental and physical health and a decline in the quality of coverage they produce.

Lonsdale is hoping for climate change in the newsroom. “We want to change the atmosphere to one in which it’s okay to be human,” he said.

Lonsdale has given seminars at a handful of Canadian journalism schools. But it can be hard to make people understand the gravity of what they may end up facing.

At the University of King’s College in Halifax, Tim Currie, the director of the journalism school says students are trained in covering breaking news situations, without specific attention to natural disasters.

“Disasters are fairly rare occurrences and I’m not sure we would spend more time on training students to deal with big evolving situations like that,” he said.  “Our focus is more in giving them the tools to work with information as it comes available and more of the likely circumstances they’d come across in a typical reporting environment.”  This includes assignments that simulate situations where police and fire officials are involved, and stories must be turned around quickly, important skills for any breaking story, including disasters.

That said, the school does have safety guidelines for student journalists and sessional instructors bring their experiences into the classroom. “We encourage our sessional instructors to talk to students about how that affected them and how they dealt with situations,” Currie said.

Natural disasters are the most complex sort of assignment imaginable, according to Carleton Assistant Professor Randy Boswell, where events are unfolding in real time, and there are aspects of danger and enormous stress.

In his fourth-year course, Journalism Now and Next, Boswell has a module that is all about the trauma reporters can face when dealing with extremely difficult kinds of issues, including but not limited to natural disasters and warzones, to covering a car accident, a devastating fire, or a child homicide. “In this particular module I teach, I introduce them to all of the potential risks, and point them to specific resources, organizations that deal exactly with these difficulties facing reporters.

“It’s almost like a last-minute reminder for people who are about to embark on a career and it gives them… a reminder to think carefully about how they conduct their careers,” he said.

“We all say the same thing: ‘If you ever find yourself in a difficult circumstance, reach out to people.’”

While natural disaster coverage may be stressful and traumatic for journalists, one of the best things journalists can do is to be open-minded and ready to cover a story, according to Lazzarino, and to know there are supports out there if something happens according to Lonsdale.

“We think we know what we’re prepared for because we’ve read about it, seen the images and put ourselves in the space,” Lazzarino said. “But that’s garbage. It all gets thrown to the wind when you actually do something.”

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[[{“fid”:”6420″,”view_mode”:”default”,”fields”:{“format”:”default”,”field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]”:””,”field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]”:””},”type”:”media”,”link_text”:null,”attributes”:{“height”:694,”width”:690,”style”:”width: 100px; height: 101px; margin-left: 5px; margin-right: 5px; float: left;”,”class”:”media-element file-default”}}]]Jessica Patterson is a graduate of both King’s journalism and Carleton’s MJ, and she lives near Calgary.