Making disaster journalism that cuts through the noise

“Reveal the institutional organs that failed, the human mistakes behind the avoidable deaths. Talk to the ones who had no choice but to stay or leave. Write about the moral challenges faced during calamities.”

In 2021, the world will continue to unravel in pieces, in shards of catastrophes, as it struggles to cope with the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic. The relentless sequence of fires, floods, and hurricanes will blend into a distant, monotonous hum for those of us not directly connected to the disasters, given the depletion of our surge capacities and the current patterns of breaking news coverage.

So what can disaster journalists do to break away from that drone? What questions do we ask? What words can we use that leave their traces as we trudge through the horrors? What imagery works when people become accustomed to photographs of glowing orange skies?

I hope we find new answers to these questions next year. One way that is known but less practiced is to dive deeper and take a long-term view of disasters. Apart from breaking news, report on the calamities in the making and contextualize the risks we face.

Open up the files of catastrophes past and “conduct a social autopsy,” a phrase used by sociologist Eric Klinenberg in his book Heat Wave, which investigates the aftermath of the 1995 Chicago disaster. Reveal the institutional organs that failed, the human mistakes behind the avoidable deaths. Talk to the ones who had no choice but to stay or leave. Write about the moral challenges faced during calamities.

Follow up with those who are accountable for the mismanagement. Trace the environmental histories and colonial legacies of disasters. Uncover the deep scars, such as domestic violence and survivor’s guilt. Go back to the forgotten ground zeroes and report on the abandoned homes and the ghost schools that have propped up as part of the recovery efforts. Investigate the lasting effects, for instance, the impact of mold on respiratory health after hurricanes.

Elaborate on the long-running injustices that have been exposed by disasters. Look at the spillage of past calamities into new ones. Report on resilience and hope — it’s essential to do so — to draw out lessons in reorganization and resourcefulness, keeping in mind extended time frames.

A more experimental way would be to create visceral presentations. As I write these words, what comes to mind is the art project Ai Weiwei built using thousands of backpacks to honor the children who died when schools collapsed in a 2008 earthquake in Sichuan, China. News outlets must think innovatively about how to create a similar emotional impact.

A recent example — though it doesn’t directly fall under the umbrella of natural hazards — is the front page of The New York Times’ Sunday edition designed as a long list of coronavirus victims to mark the death toll in the United States approaching 100,000. Simple yet searing.

Sonali Prasad is an independent journalist and researcher covering science, the environment, and climate change.

In 2021, the world will continue to unravel in pieces, in shards of catastrophes, as it struggles to cope with the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic. The relentless sequence of fires, floods, and hurricanes will blend into a distant, monotonous hum for those of us not directly connected to the disasters, given the depletion of our surge capacities and the current patterns of breaking news coverage.

So what can disaster journalists do to break away from that drone? What questions do we ask? What words can we use that leave their traces as we trudge through the horrors? What imagery works when people become accustomed to photographs of glowing orange skies?

I hope we find new answers to these questions next year. One way that is known but less practiced is to dive deeper and take a long-term view of disasters. Apart from breaking news, report on the calamities in the making and contextualize the risks we face.

Open up the files of catastrophes past and “conduct a social autopsy,” a phrase used by sociologist Eric Klinenberg in his book Heat Wave, which investigates the aftermath of the 1995 Chicago disaster. Reveal the institutional organs that failed, the human mistakes behind the avoidable deaths. Talk to the ones who had no choice but to stay or leave. Write about the moral challenges faced during calamities.

Follow up with those who are accountable for the mismanagement. Trace the environmental histories and colonial legacies of disasters. Uncover the deep scars, such as domestic violence and survivor’s guilt. Go back to the forgotten ground zeroes and report on the abandoned homes and the ghost schools that have propped up as part of the recovery efforts. Investigate the lasting effects, for instance, the impact of mold on respiratory health after hurricanes.

Elaborate on the long-running injustices that have been exposed by disasters. Look at the spillage of past calamities into new ones. Report on resilience and hope — it’s essential to do so — to draw out lessons in reorganization and resourcefulness, keeping in mind extended time frames.

A more experimental way would be to create visceral presentations. As I write these words, what comes to mind is the art project Ai Weiwei built using thousands of backpacks to honor the children who died when schools collapsed in a 2008 earthquake in Sichuan, China. News outlets must think innovatively about how to create a similar emotional impact.

A recent example — though it doesn’t directly fall under the umbrella of natural hazards — is the front page of The New York Times’ Sunday edition designed as a long list of coronavirus victims to mark the death toll in the United States approaching 100,000. Simple yet searing.

Sonali Prasad is an independent journalist and researcher covering science, the environment, and climate change.

Cory Haik   Be essential

Danielle C. Belton   A decimated media rededicates itself to truth

Brian Moritz   The year sports journalism changes for good

Matt DeRienzo   Citizen truth brigades steer us back toward reality

Meredith D. Clark   The year journalism starts paying reparations

Cindy Royal   J-school grads maintain their optimism and adaptability

Whitney Phillips   Facts are an insufficient response to falsehoods

AX Mina   2020 isn’t a black swan — it’s a yellow canary

Rick Berke   Virtual events are here to stay

Victor Pickard   The commercial era for local journalism is over

Burt Herman   Journalists build post-Facebook digital communities

Marie Shanahan   Journalism schools stop perpetuating the status quo

John Garrett   A surprisingly good year

Chase Davis   The year we look beyond The Story

Anthony Nadler   Journalism struggles to find a new model of legitimacy

Jennifer Brandel   A sneak peak at power mapping, 2073’s top innovation

Colleen Shalby   The definition of good journalism shifts

Jonas Kaiser   Toward a wehrhafte journalism

Jeremy Gilbert   Human-centered journalism

Aaron Foley   Diversity gains haven’t shown up in local news

Ryan Kellett   The bundle gets bundled

Robert Hernandez   Data and shame

Joni Deutsch   Local arts and music make journalism more joyous

Annie Rudd   Newsrooms grow less comfortable with the “view from above”

Tim Carmody   Spotify will make big waves in video

Laura E. Davis   The focus turns to newsroom leaders for lasting change

Mandy Jenkins   You build trust by helping your readers

Andrew Donohue   The rise of the democracy beat

Bo Hee Kim   Newsrooms create an intentional and collaborative culture

Brandy Zadrozny   Misinformation fatigue sets in

Rachel Glickhouse   Journalists will be kinder to each other — and to themselves

Rodney Gibbs   Zooming beyond talking heads

Talmon Joseph Smith   The media rejects deficit hawkery

Heidi Tworek   A year of news mocktails

Sumi Aggarwal   News literacy programs aren’t child’s play

Moreno Cruz Osório   In Brazil, a push for pluralism

Taylor Lorenz   Journalists will learn influencing isn’t easy

Sonali Prasad   Making disaster journalism that cuts through the noise

Richard Tofel   Less on politics, more on how government works (or doesn’t)

Kristen Muller   Engaged journalism scales

Logan Jaffe   History as a reporting tool

A.J. Bauer   The year of MAGAcal thinking

Kerri Hoffman   Protecting podcasting’s open ecosystem

Alicia Bell and Simon Galperin   Media reparations now

Marcus Mabry   News orgs adapt to a post-Trump world (with Trump still in it)

Jody Brannon   People won’t renew

Parker Molloy   The press will risk elevating a Shadow President Trump

Anna Nirmala   Local news orgs grasp the urgency of community roots

Nonny de la Pena   News reaches the third dimension

Doris Truong   Indigenous issues get long-overdue mainstream coverage

Edward Roussel   Tech companies get aggressive in local

Tauhid Chappell and Mike Rispoli   Defund the crime beat

Gabe Schneider   Another year of empty promises on diversity

Errin Haines   Let’s normalize women’s leadership

Ståle Grut   Network analysis enters the journalism toolbox

Jacqué Palmer   The rise of the plain-text email newsletter

Linda Solomon Wood   Canada steps up for journalism

Cory Bergman   The year after a thousand earthquakes

Hadjar Benmiloud   Get representative, or die trying

Juleyka Lantigua   The download, podcasting’s metric king, gets dethroned

David Chavern   Local video finally gets momentum

Tshepo Tshabalala   Go niche

María Sánchez Díez   Traffic will plummet — and it’ll be ok

Eric Nuzum   Podcasting dodged a bullet in 2020, but 2021 will be harder

Celeste Headlee   The rise of radical newsroom transparency

Alyssa Zeisler   Holistic medicine for journalism

Alfred Hermida and Oscar Westlund   The virus ups data journalism’s game

C.W. Anderson   Journalism changed under Trump — will it keep changing under Biden?

John Saroff   Covid sparks the growth of independent local news sites

Mike Ananny   Toward better tech journalism

Benjamin Toff   Beltway reporting gets normal again, for better and for worse

Don Day   Business first, journalism second

Renée Kaplan   Falling in love with your subscription

Christoph Mergerson   Black Americans will demand more from journalism

Marissa Evans   Putting community trauma into context

Garance Franke-Ruta   Rebundling content, rebuilding connections

Francesca Tripodi   Don’t expect breaking up Google and Facebook to solve our information woes

Kevin D. Grant   Parachute journalism goes away for good

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen   Stop pretending publishers are a united front

Bill Adair   The future of fact-checking is all about structured data

Joshua P. Darr   Legislatures will tackle the local news crisis

Kawandeep Virdee   Goodbye, doomscroll

Mark S. Luckie   Newsrooms and streaming services get cozy

Pablo Boczkowski   Audiences have revolted. Will newsrooms adapt?

John Ketchum   More journalists of color become newsroom founders

Mike Caulfield   2021’s misinformation will look a lot like 2020’s (and 2019’s, and…)

Joanne McNeil   Newsrooms push back against Ivy League cronyism

Sue Cross   A global consensus around the kind of news we need to save

M. Scott Havens   Traditional pay TV will embrace the disruption

Sarah Stonbely   Videoconferencing brings more geographic diversity

Candis Callison   Calling it a crisis isn’t enough (if it ever was)

Basile Simon   Graphics, unite

Astead W. Herndon   The Trump-sized window of the media caring about race closes again

Jim Friedlich   A newspaper renaissance reached by stopping the presses

Ariel Zirulnick   Local newsrooms question their paywalls

Sam Ford   We’ll find better ways to archive our work

Kate Myers   My son will join every Zoom call in our industry

Patrick Butler   Covid-19 reporting has prepared us for cross-border collaboration

John Davidow   Reflect and repent

Nicholas Jackson   Blogging is back, but better

Hossein Derakhshan   Mass personalization of truth

Loretta Chao   Open up the profession

Chicas Poderosas   More voices mean better information

Nico Gendron   Ask your readers to help build your products

Jennifer Choi   What have we done for you lately?

Ariane Bernard   Going solo is still only a path for the few

José Zamora   Walking the talk on diversity

Tamar Charney   Public radio has a midlife crisis

Gonzalo del Peon   Collaborations expand from newsrooms to the business side

Julia B. Chan and Kim Bui   Millennials are ready to run things

Sara M. Watson   Return of the RSS reader

Stefanie Murray and Anthony Advincula   Expect to see more translations and non-English content

Nabiha Syed   Newsrooms quit their toxic relationships

Francesco Zaffarano   The year we ask the audience what it needs

Ben Werdmuller   The web blooms again

Steve Henn   Has independent podcasting peaked?

David Skok   A pandemic-prompted wave of consolidation

Sarah Marshall   The year audiences need extra cheer

Samantha Ragland   The year of journalists taking initiative

Shaydanay Urbani and Nancy Watzman   Local collaboration is key to slowing misinformation

Matt Skibinski   Misinformation won’t stop unless we stop it

Ray Soto   The news gets spatial

Nikki Usher   Don’t expect an antitrust dividend for the media

Charo Henríquez   A new path to leadership

Natalie Meade   Journalism enters rehab

Zizi Papacharissi   The year we rebuild the infrastructure of truth

Raney Aronson-Rath   To get past information divides, we need to understand them first

Masuma Ahuja   We’ll remember how interconnected our world is

Jer Thorp   Fewer pixels, more cardboard

Ernie Smith   Entrepreneurship on rails

Catalina Albeanu   Publish less, listen more

Ashton Lattimore   Remote work helps level the playing field in an insular industry

Rishad Patel   From direct-to-consumer to direct-to-believers

Gordon Crovitz   Common law will finally apply to the Internet

Mark Stenberg   The rise of the journalist-influencer

J. Siguru Wahutu   Journalists still wrongly think the U.S. is different

Pia Frey   Building growth through tastemakers and their communities

Nisha Chittal   The year we stop pivoting

Julia Angwin   Show your (computational) work

Delia Cai   Subscriptions start working for the middle

Rachel Schallom   The rise of nonprofit journalism continues

Cherian George   Enter the lamb warriors

Jean Friedman-Rudovsky and Cassie Haynes   A shift from conversation to action

Tanya Cordrey   Declining trust forces publishers to claim (or disclaim) values

Zainab Khan   From understanding to feeling

Imaeyen Ibanga   Journalism gets unmasked

Ben Collins   We need to learn how to talk to (and about) accidental conspiracists

Mariano Blejman   It’s time to challenge autocompleted journalism

Megan McCarthy   Readers embrace a low-information diet

Janet Haven and Sam Hinds   Is this an AI newsroom?

Tonya Mosley   True equity means ownership

Andrew Ramsammy   Stop being polite and start getting real

Jessica Clark   News becomes plural

Jesse Holcomb   Genre erosion in nonprofit journalism

Michael W. Wagner   Fractured democracy, fractured journalism

Amara Aguilar   Journalism schools emphasize listening

Beena Raghavendran   Journalism gets fused with art