I’ve reported or opined on every significant hurricane that’s hit South Carolina in the past three decades, but I never gave much thought to what it meant to do that from a city that was staring one down until I read an email that The Post and Courier’s executive editor sent to his reporters early Wednesday morning.
“If you are based in Charleston for the storm, highly recommend you park on second floor or higher” in one of the garages near our King Street office, Mitch Pugh wrote. “Advise against the normal lot.”
I was so struck by the danger implicit in that note, and the casual, matter-of-fact way it was presented (oh, we do this all the time), that I shared its sentiment with Columbia friends who were discussing Hurricane Dorian’s pending arrival.
Their response was not what I expected. One wrote that it “sounds like staff are expected to report to work ‘as normal’ all except as to ‘where to park,’ despite Evacuation Notices from Gov McMaster.”
“Am I missing something here?” she asked.
Well, yes: The entire culture of journalism.
It wouldn’t have occurred to me to write about this sort of conversation a few years ago.
But given the hyper-charged efforts by prominent politicians, special-interest groups and social-media trolls to undermine the credibility of journalists, it seemed like a good opportunity to talk about the people in our community who make sure you have the information you need before, during and after the storm.
Dorian, thank goodness, wasn’t the big one. As massive and devastating as it was to the Bahamas, for South Carolina it wasn’t a particularly notable storm, as notable storms go; half the people in our coastal counties ignored the governor’s evacuation order.
But even if this had been Hugo all over, even if Charleston had become a ghost town rather than a site for defiant partying, the reporters, editors and photographers in our news department would have stayed behind, like the police officers and firefighters and nurses and doctors and others who consider their duty to the public more important than their personal convenience or even safety.
They would have remained because they know that accurate information is more important than ever when people are stranded either in their homes or far from home. The same is true of the journalists at any self-respecting newspaper.
As I explained to my friend: “Journalists do not stop working because of the weather. We have to produce a newspaper every day. If something happened that made it physically impossible to run the presses, I assume we would try to find a newspaper somewhere else that would let us use its presses. And even if we couldn’t do that, we’d still produce the online version. If anything, this is a time when it’s most essential to do that.”
My friend gathered correctly that most reporters, editors and photographers were indeed expected to work throughout the week. They were advised to be prepared to spend the night in the office Wednesday. Others were assigned to chase the storm from one end of the coast to the other. While their neighbors were either evacuating or partying, they hustled to finish off Thursday's paper early so the print edition could be delivered before midnight, before Dorian got too close. They posted fresh stories online and updated others night and day. Many of them are working through the weekend to report more about how the storm and the evacuation affected the Lowcountry and the rest of the state.
Even when they don’t involve danger, disasters almost always involve extraordinarily long hours, often for days on end, and journalists being pulled away from the type of stories they’re comfortable reporting to do whatever’s needed. I’ve never heard anyone complain about that. It’s just what journalists do, without ever giving it a second thought.
Cindi Ross Scoppe writes editorials for The Post and Courier. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Facebook or Twitter @CindiScoppe.