Why local disaster reporting is important

2023 was the hottest year in history, and included the greatest number of disasters costing over $1 billion in damage in the United States; between 2011 – 2021, more than 90% of U.S. counties had at least one disaster declaration. For many of us, the question is not if, but when we will experience a disaster in our communities. Local journalists are often best positioned to fill the essential gaps during these emergencies, by providing life-saving information, important context, and key local knowledge and sources to share stories and information on the ground and for those who need it most — but the combination of declining newsroom jobs, particularly in local communities, and the increasing number of life-threatening climate-driven disasters has created an important gap in coverage.

Local news outlets and journalists are often the most informed and connected among those covering disasters and can serve as essential interpreters of information between official response agencies and those experiencing a disaster, particularly for marginalized communities who are often excluded from emergency response processes. However, this can be a double-edged sword: they are often working with fewer resources and have a smaller reach than national news outlets, or may be dealing with the immediate impacts of evacuations or other difficult circumstances themselves. Like other complex and important reporting within and for local communities, this type of coverage can be essential but poses unique challenges for reporters working where they live — like first responders, reporters are exposed to second or first-hand trauma that can make emergency reporting difficult and accumulate over time.

Much of the existing resources are developed for reporters who have been sent to cover a disaster specifically and are arriving on the scene from out of the area. While this may be the case in some circumstances, local reporters can report on the story from the beginning, reach audiences and sources that may be inaccessible from the outside, and provide crucial on-the-ground reporting, fact-checking, and context on everything from local history, structural inequality, political decisions, and a disaster’s impact on different communities. Perhaps most importantly, local reporters will be there after a disaster, to track and hold officials and agencies accountable, and identify useful solutions as a recovery and rebuilding process unfolds. They can provide essential stories and information from the front lines, and help identify important impacts, and assist communities with engaging directly in response and recovery processes, and share crucial insights as to how climate change is unfolding and how local communities can respond.

You can read more about how this has shaped the Local News Bag Project here and here.