MEMO: DISASTER COVERAGE GUIDELINES

TO:              KCRAP News Staff
FROM:        John "If it bleeds, it leads" Rumplemeyer
SUBJECT:   Disaster Coverage Guidelines

We here at KCRAP generally take great pride on our coverage of breaking news stories, but I fear that, in the frenzy of trying to cover all angles, we sometimes lose our perspective and begin winging it rather than adhering to sound journalistic principles laid down long ago by such giants as Geraldo and Kitty Kelly.

Some of you, being new, may not even be aware of these longstanding guidelines. So I've decided to take a moment to remind everybody of what is expected from the suits on the loose (ha ha — just kidding) up here in HQ.

Remember that disaster news isn't for the victims; they already know what is happening to them. It's for our viewers who are not involved but don't happen to be near a traffic accident they can personally rubberneck, and so it is up to us to rubberneck for them. Keep your audience in mind!

Superlatives are Key: It isn't enough that this is a bad storm or a terrible earthquake or a large fire. It has to be the '-est' or else it's not news. And it's always the '-est' of something, especially if you throw in 'since."

"Local officials say this is the worst flood to hit the town of Donkey Fart since 1996," is the kind of thing we're looking for. "Chief, is this the worst structural fire you've ever seen?" is the kind of question you should be asking. What do you think he's going to say, "No, I've seen worse"? That would make him look callous and insensitive to the present situation so he'll always answer in the affirmative.

(Take a cue from the veterans at CNN. Two hours after our embassies in east Africa were bombed, the anchor announced that "this is the first time two U.S. embassies were bombed simultaneously." Now that's what I call some creative thinking!)

Crying Victims: For some reason that we've never been able to figure out, our viewers think it's news when people cry over a lost house or a lost family member. So make sure you get plenty of shots of people wailing piteously. If there aren't any, our editors can splice in footage from prior disasters.

Show People Who Count: All we want to see is shots of real Americans, preferably men wearing John Deere baseball caps and overweight women in Capri pants, but in no event anybody with good teeth. Kids need to be dirty or otherwise it doesn't look like a real disaster (never mind that the kids are always dirty).

Under no circumstances should you show footage of immigrants! This makes it look too much like a standard catastrophe in some Third World shithole that nobody cares about and we'll lose viewers faster than you can say "freeway chase ends in peaceful surrender!"

Insensitive Law Enforcers: This is fast becoming a favorite, and we don't want to get left behind. We need shots of crazed homeowners screaming at police who won't let them go into their houses which are still smoking or teetering on the edge of precipices to retrieve their VCRs. By the same token, avoid asking the police officers how they figured out that it's safe to go into your house for an hour but 90 minutes is foolhardy and would probably result in death or crippling injury and why the hell can't these idiots see that?

Heroes: I don't need to remind you of this one, but some of you (Larry, this means you) have been giving up too easily.  Remember: there are always heroes! Any cop who does his job, any six-year old who dialed 911, they're all fodder for the hero mill, so get creative. Even if everybody's dead, there's a hero. If it's an airline crash, find a school somewhere (anywhere) in the flight path and tell our audience how the pilot heroically steered his plane away from it, even if it was on a Sunday in July. (Never mind that if he could steer the damned thing in the first place he probably wouldn't have smacked it up to begin with. That's the NTSB's job so don't do it for them.)

Villains:  Don't let the other guys scoop us on whose fault it was. Be there first! If it's a brush fire, ask around and find out who bought charcoal lighter or a pack of cigarettes anytime in the last week. If it's an air disaster involving a light plane, sure, everybody else is already going to know it's the weekend pilot's fault, but you can still be the one to tell our viewers that he wasn't on a flight plan. (No, I don't know what a flight plan is, and neither does anyone else, but everyone knows that if you don't have one it's practically a guaranteed accident.)

Side note on air crashes: Get good stills of shoes, bibles, stuffed animals and wrapped gifts scattered in the debris. Find the guy who almost got on the plane but didn't — there's always one, even if it was on a different day and to a different city and he didn't have a reservation.

Relevant Tie-Ins: Don't give up so easily when people stop crying and everybody's worked it out with the cops. Go into 'dire prediction' mode. If we're talking floods, cut to Juan Maria Goldberg in Weather so she can warn of more rains to come. Don't forget those seismologists at CalTech who have an uncanny ability to explain how they easily could have predicted the earthquake that happened fifteen minutes ago.

Indomitable Spirit: Another surefire crowd pleaser is sound bites from the mayor concerning how his constituents are as tough as they come and will get back to rebuilding just as soon as the waters recede or the lava stops flowing or whatever. If the mayor is unavailable you can use the proprietor of the local barber shop or anybody else who looks knowledgeable concerning the prevailing mindset of the citizenry. If any of you should ever come across some community composed of people who'd just as soon leave the drippy little dorp, skip this segment.

If you're having trouble here, use the old standby question: "Are you folks going to give up now that what used to be your house looks like a bunch of charred pick-up sticks?"

One warning, however: during any scenes of rebuilding, never — and I mean never! — point out how they're just putting up the same rickety, flammable matchstick houses that got them into trouble in the first place, and still doing it at the lowest point in the the river valley or right in the middle of Tornado Alley or downstream of the same volcano. If they ever figure that out, our mobile disaster unit will end up in mothballs.

 


from: A Practical Guide for Everyday Living, by Lee Gruenfeld
* Copyright 1997, 1998 by Steeplechase Run, Inc. All Rights Reserved

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