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Citizen Journalists, Moral Tests Affecting Media Coverage Of Houston Devastation

KHOU reporter Brandi Smith flags down Sheriff's deputies to help a man trapped in his truck during massive flooding in Houston.

It’s been nearly a week since Hurricane Harvey reached the Texas coast and news from the devastation continues to consume the news cycle and our social media feeds.

But one thing that’s clear is that the dramatic way the flooding is unfolding -- and how people around Houston are communicating with one another - is completely changing the way we’re seeing and hearing the stories of natural disasters.

In particular, a slew of citizen journalists have emerged on social media in Houston sharing stories of people needing help and connecting them with volunteer rescuers.

Social media is like a lifeline, especially in times like this, said Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies. People in Houston were posting on Facebook and Twitter – even Google Maps - that they were stranded, or that loved ones needed help.

“This time around, which is so different from Hurricane Katrina (in 2005) that social media is a first instinct for people, both as consumers and as creators of news,” she said.

But there’s something else happening in Houston -- professional journalists are stepping into action. For example, a KHOU TV reporter named Brandi Smith chased down a sheriff’s car on live TV after she realized she was the only one who saw a truck driver trapped in his cab as water rose around his 18-wheeler.


McBride said this is a tough situation for journalists to be in as they are trained observers. And when they go into a disaster, it’s specifically to carry out the democratic obligation to inform the public, she said.

“Most of the time as a journalist, when you see someone in need, there are people around to help. You’re trained not to get involved,” she said.

That changes when you’re the only one there, as some reporters in Houston are discovering. Then the moral obligation to help overrides what the reporter is doing, McBride said.

“If you’re the only one that can help somebody, you have a human obligation to do it,” she said. “Journalists frequently have to balance both roles.”

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