On September 19, as Hurricane Maria gathered strength and Puerto Ricans took shelter, bracing for the worst, a team of NBC News reporters whose social media accounts suggest they’re based in Pasadena, New York, and London, filed a lengthy news story about the hurricane’s devastation, both that which had already been wrought and that which was anticipated.
As a former resident of Puerto Rico and a journalist and fact-checker whose work is focused on the island and other parts of Latin America, I read the story with interest. I was concerned about the increasingly serious landfall predictions and how friends and the island at large would weather the storm.
And then I spotted an error. “[S]he’s heading inland to the city of Miramar,” the journalists wrote about an interviewee’s decision to evacuate her oceanside home in the San Juan neighborhood of Condado. The problem? Miramar isn’t a city and it’s hardly inland. It is also a San Juan neighborhood, just a mile from Condado, and its particular geography places it in an equally precarious location: situated precisely between the Bay of San Juan and the Condado Lagoon, with only a thin ribbon of land about the width of a city block—Condado—protecting it from the Atlantic Ocean.
It was an error easy to catch if you’ve lived in San Juan, and easy to miss if you don’t know the lay of the land and you don’t check a map. But with four people working on the news report, how did these details slip through the cracks?
In the days following landfall, it was encouraging to see media attention directed at Puerto Rico, a U.S. commonwealth that is seldom part of mainstream U.S. media coverage. At the same time, it quickly became apparent that for all the journalists who had managed to get on the ground, far too few of them were arriving with the historical and cultural contexts that are necessary to report responsibly about the island. It wasn’t clear whether their grasp on geography was much stronger.
From afar, it was easy to be critical of course. The scale of devastation is impossible to comprehend at a distance. But I couldn’t help thinking of the stories that weren’t being told, even in the capital. Was it because of reporters’ inability to get around, or was it, as I suspected (at least in part), that journalists sent in on assignment simply didn’t know the right questions to ask? And if that was the case, why weren’t newsrooms doing better?
“I think, in general, they don’t know where to go to get what they want,” says Norbert Figueroa, a Puerto Rican reporter who has been filing hurricane-related stories for The Guardian US. He saw colleagues sent from New York newsrooms arriving in Puerto Rico, often for the first time. “It’s important to hire local journalists because we know the place, we’ve lived in it, and experienced it in its normal and adverse times. We can spot the differences,” he adds.
And those aren’t the only benefits of hiring on-island journalists for Maria coverage. “We have a network of co-workers, friends, and family that can help with information, especially in cases like these when mobility and connectivity are limited,” Figueroa says. Martin Hodgson, The Guardian US news editor who tweeted his interest in finding a Puerto Rico-based journalist and brought Figueroa on as a stringer after I connected the two, agrees. “We felt it was essential to have someone on the ground to report both on the human impact of the storm, and on any political fallout over the response by the federal government,” Hodgson wrote via email.
For news outlets that are increasingly confronted with limited resources, both financial and human, hiring local journalists doesn’t just make sense for more responsible coverage; it makes sense financially, too. Hiring journalists with local knowledge and experience cuts costs related to travel and lodging, as well as services like fixers, translators, and interpreters. So how can editors and producers develop and deploy their own disaster plans? Here’s a four-point primer:
- In times of acute crisis, provide an explainer document, a brief sheet that gives an overview, however incomplete or partial, of the historical and cultural high points that will give reporters a basic understanding of the place being covered. Such explainers may be available from academic centers or non-partisan think tanks such as Pew. In the case of Puerto Rico, for example, the abundant resources available online via the City University of New York’s Center for Puerto Rican Studies could serve as useful backgrounders.
- Hire local by taking advantage of services such as Blink, an app that identifies current locations of freelancers for hire, and Newsmodo and HackPack, which connect editors and freelancers for assignments. I have accounts on all three platforms and have been matched with editors who need on-the-ground reporters.
- Partner with local news organizations—and not just in times of disaster, says Joe Ruiz, who is an editor at NPR and the National Association of Hispanic Journalists’ vice president of online. Nurture longer-term partnerships that are mutually beneficial, and tap into those partnerships for quick connections and collaborations during crisis coverage. Make sure bylines are shared and brand the partnership as such by having all coverage appear with language that states it is a joint project and naming the two media outlets involved.
- Think bigger picture. It’s increasingly important, for example, to develop a newsroom mindset in which global competence—including linguistic competence—is privileged. “Offering language training as a consistent part of a newsroom staffer’s development (or supplementing their learning costs)” is one way to do this, says Ruiz.
“While we’ve seen some great work in Puerto Rico,” Ruiz adds, “we have seen some work that would’ve benefited from having journalists who have more of a background in those communities. It’s obviously not something every newsroom can do, but by working to diversify their journalists, we reduce the risks that can come from parachuting in for complex news coverage, especially during troubling situations.” I couldn’t agree more.