“The response to tragedy is one of the true tests of journalism and journalists. A generation of young reporters were on the story in Dallas 50 years ago and some of them — Robert MacNeil, Dan Rather, Tom Wicker, Bob Schieffer, Ike Pappas and others — went on to set the highest reporting standards for decades to come.
A few weeks ago, the Boston bombings tested the skill, stamina and judgment of WBUR and WGBH. This moment was make or break. CNN stumbled. These two stations did not. Build on their example…” — John Barth, Public Radio Exchange
Occasionally, something terrible contains the seeds of opportunity, especially for news organizations.
In public radio, we witnessed this most recently in the pairing of WBUR’s on-air and online coverage of the Boston Marathon bombings, which set new standards for public service news media in a moment of extraordinary crisis.
As noted in my earlier analysis of traffic to WBUR.org during the week of the bombing, journalists at the Boston station had spent years building their capacity to produce that coverage — as have newsroom leaders at other large stations.
To explore the organizational dimensions of how public radio newsrooms cover large-scale civic crises, I talked with journalists at three stations to attempt to distill lessons learned by those with firsthand experience: John Davidow, executive editor of WBUR.org; John Keefe, Caitlin Thompson and Xana O’Neill of New York’s WNYC; and Leng Caloh, from KPBS in San Diego.
The overarching message I took from these conversations was this: Crisis coverage will stress several layers of your operating systems — from the layout of your newsroom to the editorial decision-making process; from the flexibility of your web-hosting service to interpersonal relationships among key staff members, each of whom will be asked to step up and work under conditions they have never faced.
The most important lessons drawn from these stations’ planning and experience in covering crises were to:
- Practice and anticipate, using events that reflect the complex organizational response required by a civic crisis.
- Think ahead carefully about each layer of your newsroom operations, beginning with your physical facilities.
- Expand your information-delivery capacity through lightweight online services that can often be prepared in advance and updated easily as events unfold.
As I collected their advice, I gained inspiration and insight from John Barth, managing director of the Public Radio Exchange (PRX). John has also worked through a major civic crisis for a public station: the 1985 MOVE incident, when police dropped two small bombs into a West Philadelphia townhouse occupied by African-American radicals. The resulting fire destroyed 65 houses and killed 11 people.
The takeaways detailed below can be applied to almost any large or mid-sized station that is willing to prepare for its own moment of civic tragedy.
Practice, imagine, prepare
The best time to practice for crisis coverage is on election night. These cyclical events allow you to plan, implement and test your crisis-coverage systems.
In the fog of a close election, journalists in your newsroom can test editorial decision-making and photo-processing capabilities. Election-night coverage also requires all of your newsroom talent — anchors, editors, reporters and online producers — to interact in ways that are unusual, compared with daily station life.
Still, elections are not the same as true civic crises. For all that the staff of WNYC went through to report during the terrorist attacks of 9/11, they faced new challenges when Hurricane Sandy blew into New Jersey and New York last fall.
WBUR had produced many stellar election-night specials, but they did not anticipate what to do if the entire Boston mass-transit system was locked down as it was in mid-April. At KPBS, wildfires took the station’s broadcast signal off the air in 2007. (How many stations are prepared for that?)
These experiences pushed newsroom leaders at each station to think through basic issues more carefully: In the event of a large-scale emergency, how will people get to work? Who lives closest to the station and can get here without a car, bus or subway? Once they get to the station, where will they stay if they are unable to travel home? How will they rest, eat and stay safe?
To address those questions, Keefe and his colleagues at WNYC learned to anticipate rather than react. “The key is anticipating — forecasting — what people are going to need.” This applies to those working inside the station and, of course, to your audience.
Train talent to multitask
WNYC also developed what I felt was a profound conceptual element of crisis coverage. From the experience of reporting on a series of extraordinary events over the last decade — from 9/11 through Hurricane Sandy — they distilled a conceptual framework to guide their thinking about how to cover a crisis: “On our best day, we convene a part of New York into a conversation. We’ve been doing it for years on air. And, in a moment of crisis, we want to extend the way we talk to people every day . . . to be the center of the conversation.”
Think about it: Who is going to handle your side of that conversation? It will be your signature voices. Brian Lehrer fills a large part of this role in New York. WBUR has a larger crew — Bob Oakes, Tom Ashbrook and Robin Young. Their distinct voices, styles and personalities took on added significance during the Boston bombings.
Listening to the coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing, Barth cited the work of the front-line voices at WBUR (and at Boston’s WGBH): “Good newscasters stepped up to do crisis hosting and carefully navigated stressed callers, rolling updates and confusing information.”
In Barth’s view, program directors need to push all of their featured talent to develop flexibility in news coverage and delivery. Top-name hosts at most stations usually work with a small, discrete set of producers each day; in a crisis, they must be able to interact with much larger team. Those signature talents, as well as the beat reporters and producers, need to practice and prepare for crisis coverage. And, from what we’ve seen from all three of these stations, the core team producing crisis coverage has expanded to include online reporters, photo editors and social-media specialists, who will be especially important during fast-unfolding events.
Station and department leaders must also work to nurture trust among and between departments. Barth, as a former station news director, urged colleagues to “fight the silos” that usually emerge in a station’s production teams. In a time of crisis, your online team needs to know that they can make decisions as events unfold.
WNYC’s “center of the conversation” approach also provides a solution to one of the key dilemmas faced by public media journalists working in a competitive news environment. Public radio listeners don’t expect their local stations to be the first to report a breaking news story. They do expect you to do what you do best — provide calm analysis, context, depth and understanding. These qualities are often achieved with conversation.
Covering the Marathon bombings tested the news judgments of WBUR’s experienced reporters and editors, but they already knew what to do in a crisis and — perhaps more importantly — they pursued story angles that they knew how to do best. When WBUR’s Robin Young discovered that a member of her family knew one of the bombing suspects, she went with it. David Boeri, who knows shoe-leather reporting, had a riveting live update for WBUR from the neighborhood where the alleged bombers lived. Editors must be able to trust their reporters. Reporters earn that trust over time.
Quality news standards are not invented in the heat of the moment. A good newsroom practices the core editorial value of accuracy every day. Strong editing backs up stressed and dogged reporters and hosts. Set standards, follow them and make them part of your muscle memory.
Fortify your facilities
Each of the three news stations completely reorganized their news production and editing areas so broadcast and digital news teams work in close proximity to each other and can coordinate coverage. Each has developed systems to channel the high-volume, multisource content that courses through the newsroom during a crisis.
The facilities in WNYC’s new headquarters in Lower Manhattan worked wonderfully during the week-long emergency coverage of Hurricane Sandy. Keefe put it this way: “In our old facilities, when we hit a crisis, everyone had to move, to sit at a new desk with a different phone. When we built our new space we said, ‘Let’s make sure no one has to move,’ and that made the work much less stressful.”
Public radio newsrooms need to assess the scalability of technical services to deliver coverage during a crisis. Can your servers handle 10 or 20 times their usual level of traffic? Do you have immediately available additional bandwidth capacity in case your broadcast signal is compromised? If not, invest in that capacity.
Both KPBS and WBUR have dealt with this issue. According to Davidow, live streaming of WBUR.org peaked at 23,000 simultaneous streams as news of the bombing broke. When wildfires knocked KPBS off the air in 2007, the volume of online traffic spiked at 36 times the website’s average traffic, crashing the host servers. The staff lost access to the website’s content management system and for several days maintained a bare-bones web presence.
In both events, as audio streaming soared, the stations’ streaming provider quickly ramped up its streaming capacity.
Blogs and data applications
Digital technology provides a dizzying array of applications that can assist journalists in newsgathering. For those pondering what works best in crisis-coverage situations, remember that the digital formats your journalists develop firsthand experience with will be most effective. If you adopt these two elements for election night or other breaking news coverage, you’ll enhance your newsroom’s capacity to report online.
Create a flexible news blog that can be activated and updated quickly. Among the “best practices” on public media’s tip sheet for online news coverage, news blogs are the best established. Position your blog in the most visible section of your home page and update it frequently. It will be even more valuable to web audiences if your website is optimized for mobile access.
Design the blog in advance of a crisis so that your web team can easily add it to the homepage. Set it up so that all of your editors can post and edit the blog’s content. Practice using it in an off-crisis, high-volume news period, such as — you guessed it — an election night.
The WBUR Marathon bombing blog provides an excellent template.
Develop a system for developing and hosting maps and other online applications that convey essential information on your website. There are many options — opt for those that can be easily maintained and updated. At KPBS and WNYC, some of the most important and creative work emerged from data applications that helped people cope with the impact of the crises.
As the wildfires consumed parts of San Diego, Caloh produced an interactive regional map showing the fire’s progress. Caloh’s work, widely viewed as a major innovation in online news reporting, “got over 1.4 million views on the Google site,” she said. “This is a vast undercount, due to some technical limitations. . . . The real number is more likely to be in the millions.”
Keefe and the data news team at WNYC made a similar iconic contribution to coverage of the 2012 blackout caused by Hurricane Sandy: They produced an easily updated regional transit map.
“Once we realized that subways would be shut down, we knew that the system would be restored in piecemeal fashion and people would be searching for information about which parts were operating,” Keefe said. He realized that updates about city transit would be spread across a dozen separate sites for buses, trains, roadways, bridges and tunnels, so his team pulled all that information together in a map.
The transit map’s simplicity was what made it so useful, Keefe said. “We made a reference document that is just a Google spreadsheet, and we had a dozen people working together to update it. It’s a shared document, so we could have three people updating it at once.”
In producing digital maps, Keefe advises journalists to make sure they’re easily viewable on mobile phones. “The importance of mobile in a crisis can’t be overstated,” he told me. “If we’re not providing service to mobile-phone users, we’re missing an important part of our service.”