The tornado outbreak in the Deep South last Monday had special resonance for me. As I sat in my living room on a rainy, cool evening in Northeast Ohio, I anxiously watched weather reports on TV and online that showed a line of powerful thunderstorms containing confirmed sightings of tornadoes headed straight for the home of some of my relatives who live near Madison, Miss., in the suburbs north of Jackson.

I was relieved when I got the “all-clear” signal from my family in the area, but the storm did, indeed, pass right over their neighborhood. Adjoining subdivisions did sustain some damage. Areas on the south side of Jackson sustained considerable damage, and other parts of the region lay in ruins.

Watching the coverage and seeing the aftermath reminded me of the importance of teaching students the best practices for covering disasters in their community.

As a source of local news, student journalists provide an important documentation function that describes events that affect both the school and wider community. If a large natural or man-made disaster strikes the community, it’s important for the student news outlet to cover it. Plus, with the integration of digital technologies today, student journalists can provide breaking news coverage through multiple platforms even if their print magazine or newspaper is only distributed once every few weeks.

Breaking news situations are chaotic by nature. Information is at a premium, and those in the know (law enforcement, medical personnel, government officials) might either be reluctant to share sensitive information or might not have all the facts themselves. It’s important to exercise good judgment about what information to pass on to consumers.

Public radio’s “On the Media” program created a breaking news handbook for news consumers to aid the audience in deciphering credible content amid a swirl of often conflicting information. Craig Silverman, editor of the blog “Regret the Error” at the Poynter Institute, edited the “Verification Handbook: A Definitive Guide to Verifying Digital Content for Emergency Coverage.” The book, compiled by practicing journalists across the globe, provides considerations for verifying information in a hectic environment as well as vetting user-generated material. Both are excellent classroom resources.

Crowdsourcing can be a wonderful tool. After all, no news organization can be everywhere at all times, especially during a breaking news event. However, in an effort to get their time in the spotlight, some in the crowd resort to manipulation and fabrication—that tornado funnel that looks just a little too perfect or that heart-warming photo of a man pulling his dog through a flooded street might be real, but they might either be the work of a skilled “Photoshopper” or from another event entirely.

Disasters and other traumatic events can leave a lasting effect on both the journalists covering the situation as well as those affected by the events themselves. Ethical guidelines mandate that special care should be taken when covering disaster victims. These people may have just lost their homes or even loved ones. It’s important for journalists to balance their need for truthful, powerful reporting about a matter of public significance while maintaining their duty to minimize harm to those affected. The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at Columbia University provides excellent resources for journalists and educators in this regard.

Teaching about covering disasters also presents the perfect opportunity to further news literacy efforts in the classroom. After all, forcing students to confront the uncomfortable realities of news reporting (even if they never cover an actual disaster) allows them to expand their base of knowledge in determining credible from non-credible information and to appreciate the ethical dilemmas journalists face.

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