By Lena Williams
For the past four weeks, journalists from across the nation and around the world have provided minute-to-minute coverage of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria that struck Texas, Florida and the Caribbean.
Members of the press embedded themselves in the affected communities offering first-hand, sometimes personal accounts, of the storms’ devastation to an American public that relied on the media for updates, weather alerts, public service announcements and information from government officials.
During some of the nation’s most trying days, the public turned to the press as a primary and trusted source of information.
What they got was accurate, unbiased, real news accounts of the storms’ impact.
The public saw journalists weathering the storms, knee-deep in water, working alongside ordinary citizens helping to evacuate residents trapped in their homes, making appeals to the public on behalf of the citizens of the affected communities, filing stories and presenting live reports to network broadcasts. They saw broadcasters from local and network news stations speaking with residents who pleaded for their assistance.
Brandi Smith, a reporter at CBS Houston affiliate KHOU, was on the air reporting on Hurricane Harvey when she saw a semi-truck stranded on the roadway below her. The cab was quickly filling up with water and the driver was still inside.
“The water here is about- it’s going on 10 feet deep,” Smith yelled to the driver. “Do not climb into the water.”
Smith said her first thought was that she and her crew had to figure out a way to get the driver out and said she couldn’t walk away knowing that there was someone in that truck.
Smith spotted a rescue vehicle on the highway and flagged it down. The driver was pulled safely from his vehicle.
“I just thank God that you guys were right here to get me, put me back on land safe,” the truck driver told Smith and her crew. “I appreciate you.”
A Texas woman who was trapped inside her flooded home and had trouble reaching an evacuation team reached out to the anchors of ABC’s “Good Morning America” for help. George Stephanopoulos immediately contacted a rescue team and sent it to the woman’s home.
As I watched the televised reports and read stories of the hurricanes, I couldn’t help but think about the times journalists had been chastised by President Trump, had been labelled “enemies of the American people” and accused of presenting “fake news” to an unsuspecting nation.
The hurricane coverage showed journalists at their best, serving as a conduit for conveying information from government officials to the public.
There were those who questioned whether it was necessary for reporters to place themselves in harm’s way by standing in the midst of torrential downpours, hundred-mile-an-hour winds and falling debris just to get the story.
But maybe the media felt it was necessary to prove to the president, his supporters and others who have questioned the authenticity of their work that they were on the scene, that they were not exaggerating the storm’s impact, that sometimes it’s necessary to face danger in order to convey truth, especially with the Internet spreading false reports about sharks on a highway swimming in the water and alligators on people’s backdoor steps.
Some journalists and politicians have expressed hope that the human tragedies that resulted from the hurricanes might change Trump’s attitude toward the press. Some hoped it would soften his posture toward Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) in light of the dozens of undocumented immigrants who reportedly refused to leave their homes during the floods because they feared deportation.
There are those who feel the president might show some compassion for DACA residents in light of the death of Alonso Guillen, a 31-year-old undocumented Mexican immigrant who, with a group of friends, made the 120-mile trek to Houston to help rescue those stranded in the flood waters. Guillen died when his boat slammed into a bridge on I-45 on Aug. 29.
We can only wait and see whether or if the president will have a change in heart, either in his politics or his opinion of the press. Already, some members of the Trump administration have accused the media of exaggerating the depth and breadth of Hurricane Maria’s impact on Puerto Rico.
Hopefully, Americans will look back on this tragic moment in the nation’s history and how the media rose to the challenge of covering the hurricanes without fear or favor and defend the press the next time the president or others criticize the work they do.
Maybe the next time the president accuses the press of spreading “fake news,” the public will remember the hurricanes that ripped across the nation in the fall of 2017 and the real news coverage of those events and turn a deaf ear to his claims.