Journalism ethicists occasionally debate at what moment it is necessary for a reporter to cross the line from reporting on a subject to actively helping an individual in need.
Traditionally, reporters have been able to help many people in disaster situations by drawing attention to people in need of assistance — Fox News’ Matt Finn, who has been reporting for the past several days with a crew outside Houston, was one of several cable news reporters who helped first responders find an individual trapped in a flooded home by broadcasting images and details of the individual’s location.
But as first responders in southern Texas faced an overwhelming need for assistance on Sunday, many reporters on the ground increasingly found themselves briefly setting aside their work to help in search and rescue.
CNN broadcast live as correspondent Ed Lavandera put down his mic to help an elderly couple, their daughter, and their two dogs get into a rescue boat, after discovering the family in a flooded-out neighbourhood that rescuers believed had already been evacuated.
Lavandera said his crew had been taking live shots from a nearby highway all day, and though they hoped to get into the neighbourhood that was flooded out, they waited for hours as boats continued to ferry people out of the neighbourhood in order to say clear of the rescue efforts.
The crew entered the neighbourhood in a flat-bottom boat that was finished searching for people during the day, and while showing the neighbourhood live on the network, they discovered the family, including an elderly woman with Alzheimer’s.
Though CNN showed Lavandera helping pull an elderly man onto the boat, the CNN correspondent asked to cut the feed while he prepared to bring the woman on board.
“People who are being rescued from their homes don’t usually expect a full camera crew, much less a national camera crew,” Lavandera said.
“It’s a question of dignity. I had no idea what was going to emerge from that house. And as I’m running through on live television all the scenarios that could come out of it, I just tried to slow the situation down.”
The devastation has been so vast that some journalists, including Lavandera, have fielded messages on social media from people desperate for help for themselves or loved ones trapped by the storm.
After his segment aired, he received a deluge of Facebook messages and emails from people desperate to get themselves and other family members out of flooded areas, asking specifically for the CNN crew to come pick them up.
“I’ve been overwhelmed with the number of social media messages that I’ve gotten, people sending addresses and desperately looking for help,” Lavandera said, noting that he had to tell a close friend he couldn’t find a parent stuck on a roof an hour away from the correspondent’s location.
“I have to say ‘I can’t get there physically, and I don’t have the equipment to get to them.'”
He wasn’t the only reporter who got hands-on in rescue efforts.
KHOU reporter Brandi Smith went viral on Sunday after she spotted a semi-truck driver trapped in a vehicle quickly flooding with water, and stopped her televised interview to flag down a Harris County Sheriff’s Office truck driving down the highway towing a boat.
Other reporters lent their resources to rescue crews.
The Huffington Post’s David Lohr came to Houston prepared to cover the storm from his boat, which he offered to firefighters to help with the rescue effort.
Other cable crews similarly found themselves helping out in between live shots, and serving as transport for individuals left without any vehicles.
Finn, from Fox, told Business Insider he was heartened by stories of reporters helping out with rescue efforts, and noted that at several points on Sunday, he and his crew found themselves helping out in small ways with the rescue effort.
Before a live shot on Sunday, Finn said he saw a woman nearing collapse who was trying to carry a television through the downpour. He helped her find a dry place to sit and recover, and though she did not want to be on television, the crew helped her stay dry and gave her a ride to a nearby church, where they also gave some fatigued firefighters a lift to a local fire station.
“You’re seeing these stories all over the place. I’ve never seen an instance where journalists have been so crucial in helping people in need,” Finn said.
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