Harvey reporters cast aside role as observers to help

In the midst of documenting the flooding in Texas, several news reporters have set aside their roles as observers to help people in danger.

They’ve lifted people into boats, connected families through social media, flagged down rescuers and, in one case, coaxed people out of a flooding apartment house while on television. Most news reporters try to stay out of their stories, but say the dire situations they’ve seen because of Hurricane Harvey and its remnants left them no choice.

“I’m a journalist, but I’m also a human being,” said David Begnaud, a CBS News reporter who guided residents out of a flooded house in western Houston to a rescue boat in which he’d been riding. Cameras recorded the scene live on the CBSN digital stream.

While on a live shot in western Houston Tuesday, The Weather Channel’s Jim Cantore was approached by a man who was waiting for his daughter’s family to be evacuated from a nearby apartment complex. When rescuers arrived, Cantore helped deliver their message on television that everyone should leave because they may not get another chance. About 60 people eventually left, some telling Cantore they had been watching him on TV, he said.

Cantore and rescuers lifted a man in casts from two knee operations into the back of the network’s SUV and drove him to higher ground. Similarly, TWC colleague Mike Bettes was seen on the air cradling a crying baby in his arms, one of a family of five evacuees he helped transfer from a boat to a flatbed truck he’d been using to report from.

“I learned this 12 years ago to the date with Katrina’s landfall,” Cantore said Wednesday. “When people are in trouble, you just do what you can to help. I could give a crap about TV at that point.”

There are several reasons for reporters to stay out of stories, said Kelly McBride, vice president at the Poynter Institute, a journalists’ think tank. It can change the relationship they have with sources, making them feel beholden to the reporter, she said. A reporter’s job is to inform, and “any time you spend your energy on helping someone, that is energy and resources not spent on telling the story to the audience,” she said.
That said, McBride empathizes with reporters covering crises. “You can’t divorce yourself from your obligation as a human being,” she said.

Where she becomes uncomfortable is when she sees a reporter’s actions getting attention on par with the flood victims. That’s happened with Harvey, she said, declining to cite…

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