Harvey: A teachable moment for all of us

By David Baxley, SPJ South Carolina member and Assistant Professor of Mass Communications, Francis Marion University

The utter devastation along the Texas coast is mind-boggling. Cities and towns lie in ruins. The nation’s fourth largest city is submerged in floodwaters, the likes of which this nation has never seen. Hurricane Harvey’s legacy will be remembered by generations to come.

Houston Chronicle Elderly photo

Houston Chronicle photo

We’ve seen heartbreaking scenes coming from ground zero. Perhaps the most gut-wrenching video coming from Houston has been of the elderly – helpless in the midst of rising waters. Children do not understand the rivers of tears flowing from the eyes of their weary parents. You can sense the urgency of rescue workers who continue searching for survivors. These heroes have surely seen more suffering the past few days than most of us could handle in a lifetime.

Images on television and a steady stream of posts on social media give us just a glimpse of the heartache. And, most of us have paused more than once after seeing videos from the Texas coast and shed a few tears.

Hurricane Harvey’s legacy cannot be one of wind, flooding and destruction alone. Harvey must also serve as a reminder that journalism still matters.

But, Hurricane Harvey’s legacy cannot be one of wind, flooding and destruction alone. Harvey must also serve as a reminder that journalism still matters. Over the past year, some have called journalists “fake.” We’ve been called hurtful names by some hypocritical politicians.

But, then I think about the staff of KHOU in Houston who tried their hardest to stay on-the-air as flood waters breached their building. Water seeped into the studio as news anchors continued to bring viewers life-saving information. As her station evacuated, KHOU reporter Brandi Smith began a marathon live-shot from the field. As the rain poured down, she witnessed a truck driver stuck in flood waters near the interstate overpass from which she was reporting. Live on-the-air, Smith flagged down local authorities who just happened to be driving by with a boat. The truck driver, who had an uncertain fate as flood waters enveloped the cab of his truck, was rescued.

This natural disaster reminds us of the importance of local news. The emergency information being passed along from local TV stations, newspapers and multimedia outlets is saving lives. Journalists are part of the community in which they serve. The traumatic pictures and video we’re seeing – many behind the lenses of journalists – paint a horrific story, but a story that must be told nonetheless. If not for reporters and photographers out in hazardous conditions, the rest of the nation would not understand the gravity of the situation in Houston and in many communities along the Texas coast. If that’s not enough, broadcast news outlets across the country have organized relief drives, helping the tens of thousands of people impacted by this catastrophic event.

Hurricane Harvey should also send a clear message to politicians of the importance of the press. When President Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, it was the medium of television that helped a nation to become informed, to understand and to grieve. In 2017, multimedia news organizations are once again illuminating an American tragedy. If not for journalism, the nation would not be able to put this weather disaster into perspective.

News staff are risking their lives, working in horrifying conditions without much sleep, to bring the nation an eyewitness account of Harvey’s fury. There’s nothing “fake” about that.

It is a teachable moment for those who want to call journalists “fake.” News staff are risking their lives, working in horrifying conditions without much sleep, to bring the nation an eyewitness account of Harvey’s fury. There’s nothing “fake” about that. The press is important for our democracy. In the 1960’s, it was television that brought the civil rights struggle to a nation. If not for television cameras, the nation would never have understood the atrocities going on in many southern cities.

Today, news cameras bring us the horrendous aftermath of flooding while we wait to see how our elected officials respond.

For journalists, news consumers and politicians, it is time for an awakening. Understand the power of local journalism. Most importantly, recognize how important the press is to our society – and our democracy.

 

david-baxley

David Baxley

David Baxley is Assistant Professor of Mass Communications, Francis Marion University, and a SPJ South Carolina member. Baxley worked in broadcast news since 1999. He is also a meteorologist. Before entering academia in 2016, Baxley worked as an investigative producer at WIAT-TV in Birmingham, Alabama, for two years. Baxley is a regular contributor to the SPJ Region 3 website, SizingUpTheSouth.com.

 

 

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