Short Takes: A checklist can minimize risks for journalists covering natural disasters

Elli Fitzgerald, Kaixin Liu and Blythe Nebeker

Short Takes is an occasional series that captures interesting work by Missouri School of Journalism students.

Newsrooms need plans for covering natural disasters, and coming up with them before the next fire or storm will make a stressful situation simpler.

As part of our convergence journalism capstone project, we studied disaster plans at The Associated Press and other newsrooms across the country. Here are some of the recommendations we found:  

  • Create a phone tree, notify people who will be deployed.
    • One person can’t call everyone in a timely way.
    • Designate who on the tree each person should notify.
  • Packing
    • Get extra gas cans and fill those up.
      • An AP staff member recommended four 5-gallon tanks.
    • Stock up on water and non-perishable items, such as protein bars, peanut butter, etc.
    • Bring extra batteries and chargers, including wireless ones for when there is no power, for phone, camera equipment, flashlight, etc. Include any rain gear or protective equipment for electronics.
    • Pack a first aid kit and a flashlight.
    • Plan for getting stuck: Do you have extra tires? Blankets?
    • If you have access to a satellite phone, bring one, but make sure to test it out before heading out.
  • Decide what stories will always break (i.e. curfews, FEMA money, etc.) and PLAN for them.
    • If possible, write them in advance of the storm or develop templates so you have more time later on for other stories.
    • Pull historical records (i.e. previous disaster coverage in the same area) and have it on hand to add context to other stories.
    • Put in data requests early:
      • Immediately request FEMA for the most up to date information.
      • Put in standing requests for continual data updates when possible.
  • Develop a source list before heading into the storm.
    • Who are going to be the PIOs you will need to reach?
    • What are the contacts for the newsrooms in the area?
    • Have you covered a disaster here before? Has anyone you know? Who were the “person on the street” sources you used last time? Can you get their contact information again?
  • Prepare yourself for the trauma and know that the people you will talk to are also experiencing it.
    • It’s beneficial to have trauma training now.
    • Create a system of checking in among reporters, editors, etc.
    • Ask yourself: How can a staffer in the field deal with the trauma they are both witnessing and enduring?

Elli Fitzgerald, Kaixin Liu and Blythe Nebeker are convergence journalism students:

  • Nebeker has an emphasis in international journalism and minors in political science and business. She has worked at KOMU- TV, KBIA-FM, the Columbia Missourian and Newsy, studied abroad in Brussels, and worked for Thomson Reuters. Follow her on twitter at @blytheneb.
  • Liu’s emphasis is on multi-media producing. She has worked at Columbia Missourian, Vox magazine and KBIA-FM. See her previous work at
  • Fitzgerald also has an emphasis in multi-media producing. At Mizzou, she spent time at KOMU-TV, KBIA-FM and Newsy. She spent her 2018 summer in Los Angeles as a journalism intern. See what she’s up to at

If your news organization could benefit from having a group of talented students work on a new product, service or other innovation, contact RJI Associate Director Mike McKean to explore the options.


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