Before Hurricane Harvey hit on August 25, panic descended on the Texas coast. “There was a really nasty rumor going around the city of Houston that government officials were lying to the people about just how bad the hurricane would be,” Robert Arnold, local Texan broadcast journalist for KPRC, told the Independent. The story spread on social media and was picked up by blogs around the country. “It wasn’t true, and it was our job as a local news station to set the record straight, calm people down, and make sure they knew the truth.”
With power lines down and communication disrupted in Texas, local reporters found themselves as the sole purveyors of vital facts.
“Obviously, with a situation like a hurricane, there’s going to be a lot of fluid information,” Wes Rapaport, bureau reporter at Nexstar Media Group in Austin, TX, told the Independent.
Hurricanes generate the perfect opportunity for misinformation: the vacuum of credible sources in the chaos of a disaster collides with overcrowded media coverage from both local and national outlets—each with their own agendas and audiences. The stakes of misinformation are high. As the case of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 showed, inadequate media coverage can exacerbate the storm’s impact, delay government rescue efforts, and spread unwarranted fear. In New Orleans, for example, news outlets spread rumors of rapes and murders in the crowded Superdome and Convention Center, which were later proven false. As an editor of local New Orleans newspaper Times-Picayune reflected, “false and magnified reports of Katrina actually hindered rescuers” from doing their job.
Of course, Harvey’s scope differed from Katrina’s, but in both storms the media shaped the discourse, and thus the reality. According to the Disaster Research Center, what average citizens know about disasters are primarily learned from mass media accounts. “We [reporters] are people’s literal only means of knowing what’s going on,” Arnold said. “Misreporting, spreading rumors, or highlighting the wrong issues might be a matter of life or death.”
According to the Disaster Research Center at the University of Delaware, the local media considers catastrophes their own, chronicling personal topics like death, injury, illness, and the plight of evacuees. National news outlets, however, prone to sensationalism and not as emotionally or financially invested in communities, tend to highlight larger patterns of crime, government failure, and police activity more relatable to readers living far away. In the case of Harvey, national outlets such as the Huffpost and Vox initially questioned why and whether Houston residents should have evacuated, while local papers such as the Houston Chronicle dropped their paywalls and published advocacy in the form of editorials, stressing local need for aid and solidarity.
On Tuesday, August 29, four days after Harvey’s landfall, disaster coverage and local politics converged in a flare of controversy when ABC reporter Tom Llamas tweeted that he had reported instances of looting from a Houston supermarket to the police. Local citizens and activists criticized Llamas for coding families’ desperate search for food as moral depravity. Such journalistic tendencies recall reports of looting during Hurricane Katrina, in which numerous news outlets—most notably Fox News—populated the American understanding of Katrina with racialized, classist images of ‘looters.’ Journalists’ accusations of looting invokes their role as privileged, voyeuristic out-of-town disaster reporters, prioritizing civil law over survival. Naomi Klein called Llamas’ actions “reckless endangerment. People taking food from supermarkets in a multi-day disaster are not looters, they are survivors.”
In the midst of tension between local Houstonians and national media, Houston mayor Sylvester Turner issued a city-wide curfew, restricting street access under threat of arrest and police investigation. Whether or not this measure was designed to be preventative or reactionary is still debated by different media interests. While national media sources focused on the correlation between looting narratives and the curfew, Arnold from KPRC told the Independent that while the national media reported that the curfew was enacted to protect communities from looting, “as I saw it on the ground...it was a [flooding] issue...But of course, that’s not so interesting for people living in cities not affected by the disaster.” In reality, only one person was arrested for looting, mayor Turner told KPRC2.
Arnold similarly criticized the national media’s sensationalization of gun store burglaries. “Only four gun stores were looted and 109 guns were stolen,” he said. “In comparison to Katrina [where there were thousands of guns stolen], that’s nothing. And reporting that without context will only spread worry and fear.” As with looting reports writ large, over-emphasizing a narrative of gun looting in particular invokes a racialized spectre of crime that panders to the preconceptions of white socio-politics.
The fact that national news was the main purveyor of looting reports may speak to the desire of mainstream media outlets to entertain faraway readers rather than impact the lives of Texans braving the winds. Whether or not looting motivated the curfew, reports of looting perpetuate classist images, and ultimately distract from the local community’s efforts to create cohesion and stay afloat in the midst of catastrophe.
Many local reporters define their missions in opposition to national ones. “Our [local media] priorities could not be more different [than national]. We’re not about trying to get clicks or revenue,” Rapaport told the Independent. “We’re about genuine conversations with small coastal communities in the eye of the storm...we’re about getting out the necessary, objective information.”
Arnold echoes the fact-based and community-oriented approach of local news stations during the storm. “This kind of stuff would be boring for people reading from afar. We’re writing about road closures, shelter statistics, evacuation zones, donation needs. That’s why we’re here.”
As national editors deliberated over think-pieces, and CNN invited audiences to “observe the wreckage from a drone-eye’s view,” local reporters roved the streets, stepping over fallen trees to scout out stories. “We were trying to figure out what was happening on the ground, using our own eyes and ears,” Rapaport said. Chasms in communication meant that local reporters became their own eyewitnesses, and could pursue creative reporting without heeding to the agendas of larger media organizations. On an average storm-free day, local news tends to replicate national reports and themes, as editors of small papers look to larger papers for guidance on how to fill their pages—what news theorist Warren Breed calls “copycat coverage.” But disasters create a unique chance for local reporters to deviate from national trends. Where national sources showcased the dramatic, visual, or exciting elements of a disaster, local news rushed to fill the gaps and substantiate claims first-hand. ABC, CNN, and FOX got one third of their coverage on Harvey from local outlets, and most national networks lacked interviews of any sort for the first 24 hours.
Logistical problems inherent in disasters make coverage dangerous and complicated for national correspondents unfamiliar with the city, which may explain networks’ tendencies to toss coverage back to the studio and report speculation in the absence of official verification. Amid the flood of compelling victim narratives, “rumors of murders and other crimes circulated but often simply were not true,” Arnold told the Independent. “I’d rather report on an issue I knew would make a positive impact on people’s lives,” Arnold said. When KPRC visited the Red Cross shelter at BF Terry High School in Rosenberg, Texas, the team of reporters talked to storm victims and discovered a desperate need for bedding for those sleeping in the gym. Within 20 minutes of publishing the story, people poured through the school doors with donations until everyone had a pillow. “It was one of the only moments I teared up,” Arnold said. “That’s what it means to be in a category four hurricane.”
The concrete impact of conveying local needs kept Arnold motivated as other ethical dilemmas surfaced. “It’s hard to be standing there filming while someone stands in their destroyed kitchen and realizes they’ve lost their valuables,” he said. “I didn’t have water, or food, or escape. I had nothing to give them but we were told that just the fact our station was there was a comfort.”
While local news may have a stronger claim to compassion and credibility, national media plays a vital role in expanding the analytical scope of disaster coverage. A study conducted in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina by the Social Science Research Council’s Katrina Hub found that national newspapers were twice as likely as local newspapers to present the larger political and economic impact of the hurricane. While safety must remain the primary concern of local media, national media on Harvey has been discussing the political and economic impact of disaster: runaway development in flood-prone areas, the dysfunction of the National Flood Insurance Program, and Trump’s decision to eliminate the Obama-era flood risk management standard. While Hurricane Katrina made national headlines for exposing systemic state violence, national reporting on Harvey has brought to light the ways in which climate change (particularly the warming of oceans) and political denial have produced monster storms at a scale never seen before.
While normal journalistic practice preaches objectivity and detachment, Hurricane Harvey field reporters and photographers found themselves intensely identifying with storm victims. Everything happening in the lives of readers and watchers was also happening in reporters’ lives. “We were sharing experiences with these people,” Rapaport told the Independent. “Our team was staying in a hotel alongside hurricane victims and could relate to most of what people told us because our room walls were ripped off by winds the night before.”
Arnold was in the field interviewing victims while worrying about whether his mother was still alive, as water flooded most of her home. One of his colleagues at KPRC, Investigative Unit chief Shara Roberson, continued reporting while her family fled their destroyed home to a nearby shelter. The office of the local KHOU began to flood, but the station moved its broadcast a few stories up and stayed on air.
“There was a sense of us sharing the same fate, and to be honest, we had to adjust our former professional ideals to fit the circumstances,” Arnold said. “Sometimes striving so hard for objectivity means nothing if it’s not in service of truth.” While the goal of local media in storms is defined as “the communication of warnings and description of local occurrences” by the International Journal of Disaster Risk, local reporters often do more than inform the public during storms. Just as national outlets may have additional incentive for reporting criminal activity and exaggerating negative occurrences to entertain readers, local news outlets downplayed negative results of Hurricane Harvey in order to contribute to individual and community resilience. Stories of despair rarely made it to their first pages. Instead, Rapaport and Arnold spoke about the positivity they witnessed and reported.
“An old woman without transportation, without family, was sifting through what was left of her destroyed home. She told me the worst was over, and she was ready and happy for anything else that came her way,” Rapaport told the Independent. “That was the most impactful story I witnessed. That was the story I shared with the public.”
Arnold said the framing of his articles speak to his responsibility and desire to encourage his viewers, and cultivate hope, reminding them of their own innate resilience, and the need to persevere in the face of hardship. “The people need to be focused on carrying on,” he said when asked about his decision not to report on criminal activity or the policy failures that exacerbated the storm, and instead to elevate stories of inspirational rescues. “My job is not retrospective. We’ve just got to survive.”
Because hurricane coverage so directly affects police actions, government relief, and rescue efforts, reflecting on these reports means reflecting on the ways our lives are shaped by the stories of suffering we consume. The contradictory approaches of local and national news (from mutual aid within a community to large-scale official panic) brings to light a dichotomy of disaster, which Rebecca Solnit describes in A Paradise Built in Hell: “Disaster requires an ability to embrace contradiction...there is suffering, there are psychic scars…[and] there are newborn social bonds and liberations.”
Inevitably, as the national eye shifted to Hurricane Irma’s landfall, major media outlets left Houston behind—archived in the long tradition of natural disaster coverage. While CNN tallied up Harvey’s financial toll and moved on to Irma’s destruction, Rapaport, Arnold, and countless other local reporters will continue to remain with their communities, chronicling the Houston area’s long-term efforts to recover and rebuild. “This is my 29th tropical storm,” Arnold said. “My home was destroyed by Hurricane Allison in 2011 and I still didn’t quit. I’m here to stay. I don’t know what else to do.”
ISABEL DEBRE B’18 and CHRIS PACKS B’20 only watch KPRC.