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Tornado Coverage -- The Good, The Bad and The Dumb

May 27, 2013

Credit KFOR TV

Live, street-by-street television coverage of the tornado that hit Moore, Oklahoma was not enough warning to prevent the deaths of 24 people.

But, Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute's "Sense Making Project" says coverage of emergencies like this still has room to get better in the digital age.

"Well, I think  technology -- especially mobile phones -- is going to continue to improve," McBride explained. "Eventually your phone is going to communicate directly with your journalism provider.  And they will be able to push notifications to people specifically in the  path of a storm.  So, could you imagine, you're in the path of a storm, you're either not hearing the sirens or you're not aware of them for whatever reason and suddenly you get a notification that says hey, based on your GPs signal, you're in trouble. That's going to happen, eventually."

The local coverage of the Moore, Oklahoma tornado -- as it happened -- was top notch.

But, coverage of the aftermath fell prey, at times, to what McBride described as a problem as old as broadcasting itself. Reporters -- instead of just gathering the important information --couldn't resist asking people in the middle of their shock and grief how they felt about losing everything.

"It is a skill to interview people who have just been through a traumatic experience," said McBride. " And there are really very few questions that you need to ask them.  Mainly you need to ask them what did you see, what did you experience? Describe it to me. But, I think reporters are, sometimes, not very good at asking questions so they end up asking dumb questions."

And, shortly after the winds died down from the killer tornado, it seemed like some reporters were asking whether Moore residents, themselves, might be to blame for the 24 deaths because they didn't build underground shelters -- the only kind of certain protection against storms like this.

McBride said that journalism certainly has a role to play in the public discussion about how to make citizens safer from storms like this -- tax breaks for required shelters and ideas like that.

But, McBride added, immediately following a tragedy is probably not the best time to start up that discussion.

"When you do it 24 hours after the storm happened, while people are still recovering bodies, it comes across as blaming."