'The Dance Between The Media And Public Officials At A Moment Like This Is Incredibly Important' - Honolulu Civil Beat

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Richard Wiens

Richard Wiens is an editor at large for Civil Beat. You can reach him by email at rwiens@civilbeat.org.

As Lahaina smolders, the work of government leaders and journalists will sometimes be at cross-purposes.

In the wake of any major tragedy, interactions between public officials and news reporters are likely to grow tense at times.

They all have difficult jobs to do, after all, and doing them right can put them at cross-purposes.

On Maui, that tension bubbled over during a Monday news conference when Gov. Josh Green upbraided a Los Angeles radio reporter who complained about the media being denied access to the burned-out town of Lahaina.

“I’m glad you’re being turned away in this case because otherwise you’d be trampling on our dead neighbors,” Green said. Then he added, “the stories can be told over many months. Your desire to tell it here on Day 5, when people are beginning to go through the worst psychological trauma of their lives, is simply ugly.”

In a television interview the next day, Green said the “mainland folks” who push for more access “can go shove it.”

Maybe not what you’d expect to hear from the governor of the Aloha State, especially after he’d had time to cool off.

But really, who can cool off right now?

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Public officials at all levels of government have a nightmare on their hands. A beloved seaside village lies in ruins that still hide countless victims — some of whom may never be found amid the ashes.

Is it time for reporters to “be gentle,” as Green’s communications director, Makana McClellan, implored at the governor’s first news conference after the Aug. 8 conflagration?

Maybe hold off on probing too deeply into how a wind-whipped morning brush fire declared “100% contained” could flare up hours later and incinerate a town whose people received little warning other than smoke and heat?

Again, who can cool off right now?

‘It’s Not Too Soon To Ask’

“The dance between the media and public officials at a moment like this is incredibly important,” said Kelly McBride, one of the nation’s foremost authorities on journalism ethics. “It has to happen. Journalists ask hard questions on behalf of the community that wants answers. And when public officials struggle to answer those questions, that tells you something.”

“There are the questions about what happened leading up to the tragedy and whether some of these deaths could have been prevented,” said McBride. “That is absolutely the question that journalists have to be asking.

Kelly McBride, The Poynter Institute journalism ethics expert.

“And it’s not too soon to ask it because the scale of this tragedy is so vast that more information comes out as survivors tell their story,” she said. “More information comes out every day about how people were escaping or failing to escape.”

McBride, senior vice president and chair of the Craig Newmark Center for Ethics and Leadership at the Poynter Institute, does have some empathy for the police chief charged with controlling the disaster scene, the mayor and governor tasked with overseeing the beginning of recovery efforts, even the utility official trying to explain why live power lines seemed to be sparking everywhere that day.

“The public officials have got a really hard job right now,” she said. “And it is the job they signed up for, right? You can’t let them off the hook just because this is a horrible, horrible tragedy. In fact, that’s all the more reason to insist that they do their jobs.”

‘I Have To See A First-Person Account’

The reporter who inspired all that gubernatorial ire is Steve Gregory, an LA-based correspondent for iHeartMedia, a nationwide audio media network. The veteran journalist arrived on Maui on Sunday, one day too late to join a group of journalists who were given a tour of the burn zone.

“I go into it knowing what a community is going through, because I covered Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Rita, the Paradise Fire, massive fatal disasters,” Gregory said. “I go into it knowing already this community is trying to recover and heal from what has just happened. But it’s also incumbent upon elected leaders and officials to start providing answers.”

Gregory said he needs to see the fire aftermath up close to look for “a possible point of origin,” but also because “When I go on with all the different talk shows in my company, they ask me the first question, ‘What’s the scene? Can you paint a picture? What does it look like?’

Steve Gregory, talks with authorities while covering a story in Venice Beach, California. (Courtesy/Steve Gregory)

“I can’t go off of video that’s being provided by FEMA and say, ‘Well, based on video provided by the government, here’s what I see,’” he said. “I have to see a first-person account. If that means I can stand off to the side and just do a quick pan of the area, then I can ethically go back on the air and say, ‘Well, from what I can tell, this is happening. That’s happening. The destruction is palpable.’”

Gregory said the local people he’s spoken with since arriving on Maui have expressed a deep distrust of government at all levels.

That distrust could well extend to the media, of course, especially out-of-state media.

For instance, locals may not have much sympathy for Gregory’s view that “Now is actually a pretty interesting phase because more cadaver dogs are out there. That means they know there are more bodies out there and that becomes a pretty active scene as well. So it’s great for visuals, but it also really tells the story about how the progress is going.”

‘Stay Dispassionate And On An Even Keel’

The Poynter Institute’s McBride acknowledges that “the ability to process the disaster scene is important.”

She figures the tension surrounding access to Lahaina is “going to wax and wane. Eventually they’re going to let people in, the people who live there. Those people are going to share with journalists what they found. Some of them may take journalists with them. And gradually, over time, the access is going to loosen. That’s going to raise more questions and bring more storytelling to the forefront.”

She advises reporters covering the tragedy to “stay dispassionate and on an even keel, and to not take on either a real or pretend sense of righteousness or indignation that’s performative and not necessary and actually makes things harder.”

“There’s so much to be learned from this particular disaster that the news media is going to keep coming back.”

Kelly McBride

“There are lots of choices that you can make in your tone, both as you are asking the questions and as you are presenting the information that you do have, that can lower that level of conflict.”

That advice could well apply to public officials as well, because the media — even the national media — is not about to avert its gaze.

“I suspect that this one’s got a fair amount of legs on it,” McBride said. “All the questions, right? The sort of immediate press, the crush of television journalists standing up with a satellite truck, however they’re doing their live reporting, it’s going to diminish over time, probably not this week, maybe they’ll stay through the end of next week and then start to take off.

“But as the local news keeps pressing on this, the national news will refocus as more important information comes out,” she said. “I also just think that there’s so much to be learned from this particular disaster that the news media is going to keep coming back.”

Read this next:

Maui Fire Evacuations, Closures And Shelter Updates

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About the Author

Richard Wiens

Richard Wiens is an editor at large for Civil Beat. You can reach him by email at rwiens@civilbeat.org.

Latest Comments (0)

"If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen ..." President Harry S Truman. Understandable for Green to "lose it", gets a mulligan for that. But as the losses, rising death toll and answers to hard questions come to surface, I'm hearing conflicting answers-statements to this tragedy. I got your back mentality.Independent federal back investigation would be a good place to start.

808Refugee · 1 month ago

Yes - the independent journalist who dogged Mayor Bissen with questions yesterday was rather aggressive, but persistence at press conferences is necessary to get answers from those in charge. Unfortunately the Mayor feigned ignorance of the question - how many children are missing? He said he didn't know! How can the thousand plus missing persons reports not include the most minimal information like age, or at least status as a minor or an adult. And photos of the missing are posted in many places also. Many children were home that day because school was cancelled due to the weather conditions. Many probably were home alone while their parents worked. Families were later found incinerated in their homes and cars. "Journalists ask hard questions on behalf of the community that wants answers. And when public officials struggle to answer those questions, that tells you something." Are our state and local governments trying to hide this information because the reaction of the public to tens if not hundreds of missing and presumably dead children will ignite an emotional firestorm?

Kuliana · 1 month ago

I disagree with you, the journalist from CBS was rude, as wrong as i think Andaya was, he wasn't letting him answer the question and kept interrupting so the Mayor stepped in. By the way it was shown on CBS morning the next morning about asking the hard questions and he didn't show the whole thing. Plus that same journalist posted on Tik Tok a video showing the burn zone a burned dog. Yeah "Kelly McBride, one of the nation’s foremost authorities on journalism ethics. 'It has to happen. Journalists ask hard questions on behalf of the community that wants answers. And when public officials struggle to answer those questions, that tells you something.' and Steve Gregory, we really needed to see that.

readergirl · 1 month ago

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