How to Inform the Public as an Information Gatekeeper During a Disaster with Sydnie Kohara
“Sometimes, it’s not going to be pretty. And sometimes, it’s not going to be easy, but we’re going to make it, and we’re going to move on and move forward, oftentimes, to a better place.” – Sydnie Kohara
In times of disaster, providing accurate information is crucial to public safety and recovery. In this episode, Jennifer interviews Sydnie Kohara, Founder of Kohara Studios on the role of journalists in informing the public during a disaster. Sydnie shares her experiences as a seasoned journalist who’s gone through numerous disasters. She also offers her expertise in disaster preparedness, organization, self-care, and communication. Everyone can be a journalist. Tune in and find out how you can take part in delivering facts during a disaster and how it can save your family and neighbors.
- 04:28: A Career That Will Take You Around The World
- 13:23: Do What You Can To Tell People Stories
- 18:25: What to Tell and NOT to Tell
- 22:48: Disaster Preparedness
- 30:57: Volunteerism
- 34:05: How to Organize and Communicate
- 3609: Be Self Sufficient
- 44:26: Everyone Can Be A Journalist
- 50:40: Take Care Of Yourself
12:06: “People can come together and do so much by just winging it. You do what you can to help the people that you serve.” – Sydnie Kohara
12:56: “It’s a myth that we all turn on each other, or grab our guns, then start hoarding. It doesn’t normally happen in a disaster.” – Sydnie Kohara
16:38: “Do what you can to tell people stories, whether it is the good or the bad… Try to let other people know what is happening on the ground, and tell the best story you can.” – Sydnie Kohara
21:41: “Tell the people exactly what is happening right at the moment and dispense with all the other little things. Get right into the nitty gritty of how you’re helping, or what’s being done, and where your resources are going.” – Sydnie Kohara
23:55: “There’s a lot going on during a disaster, but if you pre-plan and prepare ahead of time, you can be ready for that coming disaster.” – Sydnie Kohara
26:27: “People are often very kind. But when there’s a camera involved, they’re not always eager to share that camera with other people. Egos can clash, and you need to leave all of that behind.” – Jennifer Gray Thompson
28:36: “It’s much easier and cheaper to do stories. When there’s no disaster, you can tell people to pack a go-bag and have provisions ready until you’re blue in the face. But a good reporter will keep pushing and find opportunities.” – Sydnie Kohara
33:54: “You can do things to make sure that the information is correct, that you’re sharing the same information and it is official information. And now, we’re both blessed and cursed to have so many avenues towards communication.” – Jennifer Gray Thompson
36:43: “Try to be as self-sufficient as possible. Try to take care of yourself and be prepared yourself. Don’t wait for government officials or the fire department to tell you to get out. Be very aware of your surroundings.” – Sydnie Kohara
42:30: “Let me not be part of the problem, let me be part of the solution. And after covering all these other disasters, just go, just be aware of what more you could do.” – Sydnie Kohara
42:44: “Beware of the heroes and look for the helpers because helpers are the people who have thought ahead, or not there in any way for glory.” – Jennifer Gray Thompson
44:34: “We’re all journalists. We’re all storytellers. Everyone owns a phone that has a camera and a recorder.” -Sydnie Kohara
47:16: “Big deals don’t get done in a text and Facebook. Get out and meet people.” – Sydnie Kohara
48:39: “In a disaster, show what you see, tell what you know, there’s no fuel to the fire you need to add. Give people the information that they need.” – Sydnie Kohara
49:46: “Try to put yourself in the shoes of the person who’s suffering and who you’re asking to tell a story. Make sure they understand you’re there for the right reasons.” – Sydnie Kohara
54:44: “Sometimes, it’s not going to be pretty and it’s not going to be easy, but we’re going to make it, and we’re going to move on and move forward, oftentimes, to a better place.” – Sydnie Kohara
Sydnie Kohara is the founder of Kohara Studio, former KPIX news anchor, and Emmy Award-winning journalist. She has more than 30 years’ experience helping people tell their stories. She lived and reported from all over the world- from the US to Singapore, Frankfurt, Dublin and London – and works across all media – from print, radio and television to online and digital – to cover current events, profile newsmakers and share stories that matter.
As founder of Kohara Group LLC, Sydnie has produced media projects for Fortune 500 companies like Oracle and Charles Schwab & Co. as well as provided media training for diverse clients, including a healthcare think tank at MIT, the City of Palo Alto and several healthcare startups.Her storytelling reflects a diverse career and a knack for discovering heart pumping adventure.
Sydnie is also a member of Asia Foundation’s Lotus Circle in the Bay Area, a vibrant community of philanthropists championing The Asia Foundation’s work across 18 countries. She has emceed and moderated programs around the world.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Welcome to the podcast, How to Disaster. On today’s podcast. I’m very pleased to have this Sydnie Kohara. Sydnie Kohara has a long and award winning career as a media specialist, a storyteller, a broadcaster and a journalist. I asked her here today to talk to us about her experience covering disasters. But also, she is a full time resident in Sonoma County, being on the other side of experiencing disasters as a citizen and as a journalist.
So please welcome to the podcast, Sydnie Kohara. Once again, welcome Sydnie Kohara to the podcast, How to Disaster.
Sydnie Kohara: Jennifer, thanks so much. It’s great to be here.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Sydnie, I was really excited and pleased to have you on because I spent about two decades watching you on our local news, KPIX. I know that you have a wealth of experience covering local issues, but also disasters. Disasters not only here in the Bay Area, but also across the country. So I wanted you to come on today to talk to our audience about really how to media during a disaster. What are some of the lessons that you’ve learned from your experiences? And what are the best practices moving forward?
Sydnie Kohara: Yeah. Jennifer, that’s precisely the reason that I wanted to come join you today is because I have covered disasters off and on for my 35 year journalism career. But now that I live in Sonoma County, I’m part of the group that has to watch out for disasters. I mean, I’m in a fire zone, and I’m someone who watches the news when these disasters start heading, these fires start heading our way. So it’s really a pleasure to be here and help, I guess, I think to spread the word and offer, perhaps, my experiences and any expertise I have. But also advice for other people who are going through this because now, I’m actually part of the community that needs to hear this information when they’re in the middle of a disaster. So it’s really wonderful to be here, and I would love to share anything and everything. So go ahead and ask away. It’s just great to be here.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Well, thank you. I think the first thing we should do is just for the listeners who might be in Missouri may not be as familiar with your career. If you could give us a biography and some of the disasters that you’ve covered. You’re also an Emmy Award Winning Journalist. So can you touch upon that first, and then we’ll go into the other details?
Sydnie Kohara: Sure. A little bit about my background, I grew up in Louisiana, went to LSU. My first job out of school was in Montgomery, Alabama. And one of the first disasters I covered there, the Hurricanes came through Montgomery and the surrounding area. And so like, quickly as a brand new journalist, this was part of any job that I had, there were always something unexpected happening. And so that was my first job out of school. And then I moved to California to Sacramento. And there I was always in the middle of that where there was a lot of flooding. There were other things happening in Sacramento. But what I also remember is I actually love being out. That’s where I really felt like I was giving back to the community and helping. Also from Sacramento, I actually worked as a governor’s appointee and worked with the Department of Alcohol and Drug Programs. But then got back into television in San Francisco in 1989, [inaudible] television, ABC, three weeks before the Loma Prieta earthquake.
And mind you, ABC was the station that was covering the World Series at the time. And I think a lot of people can remember that when Al Michaels was saying we’re having an earthquake, and the whole thing was breaking up. So I was there in that newsroom when all of that happened. We won a number of awards for the coverage that we had there. And from there, I went overseas to Singapore to work for CNBC Asia. At the time, India and Pakistan were testing nuclear bombs. There was unrest in Indonesia, the whole financial crisis. Then I came to New York to work for CNBC London. And then back to San Francisco, I was working for the CBS affiliate in San Francisco. And again, covering floods, covering fires. And that’s where I ended my career. But now, living up here in the middle of a fire country, I’m on the other side now so I tried to take all of the things that I learned and put them to good use. One of the things when I was in San Francisco, one of the big, big disaster stories I covered was Hurricane Katrina down in New Orleans. So I was down there for that. I have experience in all places that I’ve been with some form of disaster and recovery, and the people who were there and the people who were affected on both sides. So it’s been a really interesting journey, I wouldn’t trade it for the world. This is a career that has taken me all over the world. But I’m very, very happy to be where I am now.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: So in your first disaster, because when you said 1989, the first thing I thought of was, of course, the Loma Prieta Earthquake, which was massive. And I was in the middle of San Francisco during, it was really a sort of a stunning disorientation. Even though we are used to earthquakes here, I don’t think any of us were quite prepared for the degree of damage, and human life and suffering that actually came from that earthquake. Can you talk about what you first notice in the newsroom about how to take a very traumatizing experience, and then put it in a way that can be distilled to the public that shows the emergency, but also provides accurate information?
Sydnie Kohara: No, I remember that. So distinctly, it’s hard for me to even look at video of that time, especially the building that went down in the Marina district of San Francisco and killed a number of people. that the bridge, the Bridge falling down. But I actually was working and anchoring the new show in the morning, the morning news. And then I went out, and because it was a World Series, I was covering a story about the World Series. I got home, probably after about 10 hours of work. And I had just moved into an apartment that overlooks the Marina district. You could see Alcatraz, and it really looked out toward the north end of the bay. And all of us, I was talking to my old boss in Sacramento, and all of a sudden, I noticed out of the corner of my eye that my clothes were moving in my closet, and then the whole building started shaking. And I said: “We’re having an earthquake.” And my boss not one second later said: “I can feel it up here in Sacramento.” Now mind you, Sacramento is 90, 100 miles away from San Francisco. And I said: “I got to hang up, I got to go back to work.” I was able to get my car out, got to the newsroom. I had only been there about three weeks, so I was very, very new.
But in a newsroom, what really is one of those interesting things is when a disaster like this happens, the whole playbook of producing a show goes out the window, and all you think about is how do we serve our community? How do we take care of our viewers and the public? And I just remember, every reporter got sent out the door. Bankers just started sitting in the chairs. And because we were ABC, what was really a very lucky situation, we had extra generators. So we never went off the air because the World Series was in San Francisco. We had these generators. Now, I am very new. I came to my news director Harry Fuller. I said: “What can I do?” And that’s the thing, everybody in the newsroom, if they weren’t sent out on the story, what can I do? How can I help?Sydney, can you start calling around? Tell us about all the bridges, what’s happening with all the bridges? Are they safe? And when you get on the phone, you start calling everyone to find out.
Meanwhile, all of these reports are coming in about the Bay Bridge has collapsed. And then also over in Oakland, the Cypress freeway has collapsed. I’m calling around the bridges. I mean, I’m just sitting on the side just doing what I can. And in the middle of all of this, my news director said: “Sydney, listen, someone in Australia wanting a live shot, can you just go sit over in that chair and just tell them what’s happening.”So I just started giving live reports, whether it was to Australia, Japan, the rest of the world wanted to know. I mean, they you know ABC was in San Francisco, they were busy with the World Series, and they were scrambling as well. And I started giving news reports, and people would be coming up handing me pieces of paper, or they would hand it nice to get something to drink, someone would be handing that to me. And what we found out later is the whole management side of our television station had come to the newsroom, and people were giving me things, or I’m saying, Can I get this? Can I get this? It was everyone down from the general manager, the head of programming, all of these executives came over. I didn’t know any of them, but they were part of this well oiled machine that just whatever you needed to do, you did it. And it was just amazing to see how everything got dropped. And you just did what you could do with what you had. Reporters just, we were up all night, we were covering it. All we could do is imagine for people out there who weren’t in homes, or they were stuck on the bridge. And we said: “What can we do? And how can we help?” And that’s how we kind of approached it.
“People can come together and do so much by just winging it. You do what you can to help the people that you serve.” – Sydnie Kohara
And I just remember with the Good Morning America crew, after helping them, they were going on live. And the next morning, riding around Union Square to get home. This is the main shopping district in San Francisco and just eight inches of glass on the ground, and the city had no lights. But in that time, I think such a horror and a shock to everyone, that I think there were only like four reports of any kind of looting or anything. I think people were just stunned that this had happened. And the thing is, they’re saying that we could have another earthquake anytime, that another fault is set to go at any time so we should always be ready. But it just showed me how people can come together and do so much by just winging it. It was, you do what you can to help the people that you serve.
“It’s a myth that we all turn on each other, or grab our guns, then start hoarding. It doesn’t normally happen in a disaster.” – Jennifer Gray Thompson
Jennifer Gray Thompson: What I really love about that is when you say like, what can I use? I have people doing whatever they could, whatever talent they have, they brought it to the table. And from day one, and ReBuild North Bay, we’ve taken the lessons that we learned during the 2017 fires. And our primary value is always asking, What do you need? And how can we help? And then from there, we decide what our activities are, instead of what we want to do for you, or we can. And I think there’s something about a disaster, which has actually been proven. But Rebecca Solnit wrote a book called, A Paradise Built in Hell. And she went back and looked at many disasters, starting with the 1906 earthquake, and said: “Actually, what you see is the very best of humanity.” And it’s a myth that we all turn on each other, or grab our guns, then start hoarding like that doesn’t normally ever happen in a disaster. And there’s something comforting to know that in a newsroom, you see the exact same paradigm play out. So I kind of love that. So was it any different when you went into another community, even though you were raised in Louisiana, but to go back there again to cover Katrina? Were there any differences between there and challenges?
Sydnie Kohara: Between being in one newsroom and then being in another, when you’re sent out in the field, you have no idea what to expect there. I was being sent from San Francisco to try to go to New Orleans and cover the story. When you knew the network’s were going to be there, everyone was going to be there. But we said, what different perspective can we bring? And I was asked to go. I just remember they said: “Can you go to New Orleans?” And I said: “Yes, I’ll go.” Wait, I didn’t even tell my husband I’m going. I was on a plane and I called my husband and said: “Just listen, I’m going to be gone for a week.” Two photographers, two reporters and a producer.
And we just jumped on a plane. We couldn’t get an RV. We had to go to India. Allison drove all night to get there, and we had no idea what to expect. And the first thing that we ran into, I think about this all the time, when you talk about strangers helping, getting into the middle of Mississippi in the middle of the night and realizing you’re about to run out of gas and you’re just driving a freeway, and there are cars on either side that have run out of gas, and hearing, stopping, every time you stop, every time you stop, no gas, no gas. Until finally, I just walked up to a policeman and said: “We’re CBS. We’re trying to get into New Orleans, can you tell me where I should go?” He said: “Go to this place. I’ll radio ahead.” And Goddess to the front of the line, Goddess the guest, I will be forever grateful. I believe it was Hattiesburg, Mississippi. So if you’re watching this out there, give a big shout out for your team in Hattiesburg, because we would not have made it. And then getting to New Orleans, every freeway into the main part of New Orleans, the outskirts that have been flooded is shut off there. The state trooper turned everybody around and had to tell my crew, get in the back. And I’m from Louisiana, my Southern accent came out and I just went and explained what we needed and why we were there. And to, please, let us in. And people are looking for bad people. We were not there, we were trying to help. And they knew that and got in. The first day, I was on the ground. I’ve not even an hour and a half, and I found a sheriff’s deputy who was in a boat going to look for victims. And I said: “Can we hop in and tell your story?” And when you’re floating over parts of New Orleans and you look down 10 and 12 feet below you, cars are parked on a street. I just remember that I couldn’t even talk, it was so unimaginable. And I said, I’ve got to do my job. I’ve got to get a story together in two hours. Talking to this deputy sheriff, we’re looking for people in roofs on rooftops, talking about sending his family away so that he could stay in help. We did some beautiful work there. We’re able to talk to people, victims, remember [inaudible] who was trying to move 13 family members. The hotel needed money, and he was trying to move people out because there was mold everywhere and just the frustration, the anxiety.
“Do what you can to tell people stories, whether it is the good or the bad… Try to let other people know what is happening on the ground, and tell the best story you can.” – Sydnie Kohara
Thousands of people wound up donating to help from the Bay Area, New Orleans, and I am still connected to him via Facebook. But you do what you can to tell people stories, whether it is the good or the bad. Can you tell others, this is what’s happening here. It was hard for me because I’m from the area. When you have people begging you on the streets of New Orleans saying, can I have some water? And I’m going, we live in a state that has more than its fair share of annual rainfall. We live by the Mississippi River, and here are people asking us for a bottle of water? It was some crazy time, you meet that person who is desperate. And then you meet a Vietnamese refugee in the same area who, through translation for her nephew or grandson, says she’s really happy she caught a fish. Your house is flooded, but she caught a fish in there. And I said: “Is she upset about her house being flooded?” He says she’s from Vietnam, she can handle it. Sometimes, there were some heartwarming things. There were heartbreaking things, but all you can do is try to let other people know what is happening on the ground, and tell the best story you can.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Well, I think that actually is a perfect segue into, one of the most bizarre parts for me during 2017 was to be part of a story, and it wasn’t in the way, my hometown where I’d grown up, there’s such massive destruction that Anderson Cooper was on a street corner. And I found that to be very surreal, that spot between where you’re used to being a viewer of the story. Instead, you find your community the center of the story, you actually have a unique space now, as being with our wildfires, you are now full time Sonoma County residents. What do you watch for, you’re watching that balance of the media between almost like exploitation of the story, and then also reporting of the story. Can you talk about that?
Sydnie Kohara: I absolutely can talk about it. I won’t tell you how often I yell at the TV more during disasters than I ever do. Because I see things, to the people who are watching don’t really matter. But I know that they need to get their big anchors out there on the street corner. I’ve been on street corners. I’ve done this. I’ve stood in it next to a front yard down in San Bernardino County when something was burned. They’re talking about the devastation. And now, I looked at it and realized that that was someone’s home. Can I always keep in the front of my mind that that is someone’s home? It meant something to them instead of just, here’s something that burns.
So one of the things after being a part of it, and now on the other side is someone who watches the news to get the latest information. And it’s hard when you’re coming into an area that no one really knows. They don’t know where we lived because they call it the Springs. I mean, it’s a very small community in Sonoma. So they go to where they’re told, this is where the fire is. But what I would love to see, and they talk to people about what they’ve lost. What I would love to see, and it’s not so bad because people should see that. I would love to see this protocol where if a reporter is on the air and they go to them live, the first thing they say is, we are in this community, in this town, in this county. Technology is so sophisticated now that people can get on their phones, they can figure out the websites where you know where that fire is. But people can go and pinpoint, and see where that fire is. But if I wish, if every reporter started their disaster LIVE SHOT, a report with this is where we are. These are the people affected. And tell people who are in the rest of the world exactly where it is, they can look it up wherever they are and see exactly where it is. And not just say, well, we’re in New Orleans. Well, New Orleans is huge, where are we? What is affected? What’s going to be affected?
Same thing with, and you probably have been involved in some of these news. When they have these big press availabilities, when they’re going to give an update on something and you see all of the officials who were there, and the councilmen, and the supervisors, the sheriff, and they spend 10 or 15 minutes thanking everybody. At that point, we’re so thankful. It’s not even funny, just dispense with that. And the minute you get on the air live, just say, this is our situation, this is what’s happening, these are the people worried about, this is what we’re looking toward, this is how we’re going to handle it. If they have other people who want to talk, but to sit there and just thank everybody at the very beginning, we’re all thankful. I mean, if they want to put up a graphic, or something, a poster that gives us the information.
“Tell the people exactly what is happening right at the moment and dispense with all the other little things. Get right into the nitty gritty of how you’re helping, or what’s being done, and where your resources are going.” – Sydnie Kohara
But for me, sitting in Sonoma County and watching this fire come and I knew where it was, but to have to watch people that I used to work with, and I would call or text people to stay and say, just tell them, this is where it is. And this is, tell us this first. So that’s something that I wish would change. If there would be a little bit more protocol, just tell the people who can watch you, or hear you, or see you, tell them exactly what is happening right now and kind of dispense with all the other little things. I mean, as far as thank you, let’s just get right into the nitty gritty and how you’re helping, or what’s being done, and where your resources are going.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I think you bring up a really important point. And having been in an auditorium that was smoke filled in 2017, seeing sort of the elected officials were struggling with protocol. And protocol before in a non emergency situation, that you think of each other many times. In this case, maybe 40 minutes to get through. And until we got to, actually, CAL FIRE or a local fire agency and police, and I don’t think that any ill intent was meant by that, whatsoever. But I think that the protocol should, I totally agree with you, the news is like, here are all the facts. And if you’re an elected official, we want your leadership, we just want to ask for the information. It’s about life, health and safety. So I think you’re saying the same thing.
“There’s a lot going on during a disaster, but if you pre-plan and prepare ahead of time, you can be ready for that coming disaster.” – Sydnie Kohara
Sydnie Kohara: Absolutely I am. I think one of these events when everyone is sounding around a microphone, and then you have a whole line behind them, these are very, very important for updates. But dispense with the pleasantries, get right into the information and look at these events as almost as a produced show, if you will. I mean, it’s tough to think of it that way. But to have someone there who can say, this is what we’re going to do, and this is what we’re going to do, and it just moves very, very quickly. In this day and age of technology, one of the things I would love to see is the communities that are affected, have these some people on call whether it’s a graphic designer, freelance or something who can quickly, like they do in weather, in a television station, in a newsroom. There is a weather producer who’s making new graphics for every weather forecast and every new show. And if there’s something that someone that you can pull in and say, let’s give them a graphic of exactly where this fire is, where it’s going, what we’re going to be doing. There’s so much with technology that we could be doing. And I know that there’s a lot going on during a disaster, but these are things, this is part of the preparation. If you can pre plan and prepare ahead of time to be ready for that disaster that’s coming, I mean, I think about the next fire almost every day now as we’re getting into July, August, September. But could we help counties or cities be prepared?
In Sonoma County, I’m sure all of the officials, and you would know this, Jennifer, have they all come together and said, how can we do this? And how can we help each other? And how can we streamline this to get the information out very, very quickly? The right information out, and I think it’s a lot of what I call disaster preparedness. Thinking and comparing it to a newsroom, you have people who have put together shows. And when it comes on, they just sit and do the same thing. But they’re saying, this is what we need to do. This is what we need to do. And you’re pivoting all the time, but you work with what you have. And you get the information out there. You don’t think about it, just worrying about somebody’s feelings. I mean, you get over that, and you just move on. I always have often thought that in our community, I know so many retired journalists in this area. What if we got together and said, can we help you with your communications? Can we help organize? Can you be the person who calls about the bridges? Can you be the person who calls about this community? Is there a way to connect with people in fire danger to see where they’re doing? They have apps next door and things, but can there be a more coordinated effort to make sure we have the latest information? And I think there can be, it’s just gonna take spiration.
“People are often very kind. But when there’s a camera involved, they’re not always eager to share that camera with other people. Egos can clash, and you need to leave all of that behind.” – Jennifer Gray Thompson
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Yeah, I think it would be interesting to have a volunteer corps of experienced journalists. I know that there are more often now, and people who are, what I want to say, like rogue journalists who are going out, but they’re often just reposting what other official sources have done, but don’t always just provide the official sources. So even as a journalist, making sure that you’re sending people to the official sources, I will give a shout out to Sonoma County. In the last two years, they have hired a communications director, which is really important. And it’s somebody to coordinate. We didn’t have that in 2017. And the people who stepped for it, and I know some of those people, they didn’t jive with what you could. Have a lot of trauma with disaster, and people don’t always respond in the most, they’re often very kind. But when there’s a camera involved, they’re not always eager to share that camera with other people. And so egos can clash, and you kind of need to leave all of that behind.
Sydnie Kohara: It is. Having worked in state government, and I just remember the night of the Loma Prieta earthquake, a very big government official came in to do an interview. And so we’re getting him set up and he says: “Well, do you have a makeup person who can work on my eyebrows?” And I’m thinking to myself, we just had this huge earthquake, and he’s asking if someone can help him with his eyebrows? And you just go, okay, I understand that, visually, this is important to him, but it really sort of, I don’t think I voted for him again after that.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: So what was that with his eyebrows? They would need a whole person.
Sydnie Kohara: I guess he thought we had makeup people on staff, or something like that. So I guess he felt like we shaded them a little bit more, but it anyway, it’s just one of those things, which is not something I want to remember about the earthquake time. But it did tend to tell me what was important to some people at that time. And you’re right. I think most people in government work who are helping with a disaster are very good about it, but just dispense with the pleasantries. Let’s just get the information out to the people who need it, and how can we prepare for the next one. Which for us, it’s going to be an earthquake or another fire.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Well, in Sonoma County where we live is now like a puzzle piece of wildfire disasters. And so it hasn’t burned in previous years, we’re now getting mega fires that are coming through. I actually saw this really interesting question recently posed by a reporter from K Community Science. She was reporting on a place where they had done mitigation, and in fact, didn’t turn down. And she said, retweets, to get my bosses, to allow me to cover more of these stories. What do you think about that? I think I’m a big fan of it, but I can see why it’s also a difficult sell.
“It’s much easier and cheaper to do stories. When there’s no disaster, you can tell people to pack a go-bag and have provisions ready until you’re blue in the face. But a good reporter will keep pushing and find opportunities.” – Sydnie Kohara
Sydnie Kohara: It’s a difficult sell, because it’s much easier and cheaper to do stories. When there’s no disaster, you can tell people to pack a go-bag and have provisions ready until you’re blue in the face. Most people just do not think about it. And to tell them, oh, if we did some burning, advanced burning, that would help with our wildfires and things. It’s not a sexy story so it’s hard. I think that in places where we are prone to wildfires, I think if you have a good newsroom and a good leader in your newsroom, they will see the importance of disaster preparedness and talking about these sorts of things. But again, it’s not as sexy, it gets a lot of views and things like that. News is a business, and that’s something that you have to see that’s not always what drives the decisions. But at the same time, I’m saying that a good reporter will keep pushing, develop a story around, find the anniversary of a fire, or the anniversary of the earthquake and start developing a series around it, or develop, let’s do a town hall about it, or something like that. So I think there are ways you can, as a reporter, you can kind of wiggle in there and find opportunities that will make that happen.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I really, actually, now, I’m really pondering the idea of having a volunteer Professional Journalists core. People who have the right ethics and the right training, and to be in service of their community. Sonoma County, we’re affected regionally, Napa, Lake Mendocino, and Sonoma counties, that might be something that’s kind of like a firewise community. You figure out who has a bulldozer, who has the skills that they can loan to the county, because they do get very stressed. And the thing that gets left behind constantly, even their efforts. Otherwise, the Latinx community and communications in particular are an area that needs more attention, how to communicate and where to communicate. So can you talk about the importance of how to even approach that from a visual news or broadcasting?
Sydnie Kohara: I think this is such a great thing that you brought up, Jennifer. Because of our multicultural community, I live in a very Latinx community, and I’m on the board of La Luz Center, which really helps the immigrant community thrive in this area. It’s something we’ve been thinking about, how do you prepare for the next disaster? I mean, after the disaster starting to give money, aid and assistance, but I think for a long time after the Loma Prieta they were talking about some red cross programs that I had heard about, bring in a big sort of shipping container of supplies that can be in certain places around neighborhoods, that sort of thing. How do we plan ahead to make sure that our communities are taken care of, safe and have the right information?
Okay, I’ll give you a good example. After Hurricane Katrina, have you ever heard of the Cajun Navy? This whole story is about a group of volunteer people with boats when there is flooding, the Cajun Navy will go to Houston, and they will start helping in the rescue, search and rescue efforts. And it’s a total volunteer situation. But people with boats will get together and help the people who need to be rescued. And I’m going, okay, there are ways that somehow we could make that volunteerism and that opportunity to help other people. We could put that together here, there, everywhere. That could be part of the plan. I mean, I know a former journalist who went down to the city hall and volunteered to help with emergency communication. And I think, if our houses are in danger, can we be part of the solution? And can we do that? I really think that there could be, maybe that will be part of what your organization does. Can we create those volunteer pods that will be there for every community, whether it be in communications, or whether it be in other assistance, whether it be helping to get people out. I mean, as long as we don’t get in the way of the first responders, but it seems like they’re always the Cajun Navy, and the South is always there to help people.
“You can do things to make sure that the information is correct, that you’re sharing the same information and it is official information. And now, we’re both blessed and cursed to have so many avenues towards communication.” – Jennifer Gray Thompson
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Well, I’m sure that they have protocols and rules that they follow, and ethics. We have come a long way, like in 2017, CAL FIRE, they were doing daily updates, but they didn’t have a Spanish translator at that time. So I went to got my friend who’s a professional translator, [inaudible] Mendoza, and then she went. I was just amazed at how ad hoc it was. And I just drove her down, and then she took care of, making sure the Spanish translation was correct. But now that we know we are in an era of mega fires, it just seems like another way to do a virtual deployment, essentially of volunteerism that have guardrails on them. You can do things to make sure that the information is correct, that you’re sharing the same information, that it’s official information. And now, we’re both blessed and cursed to have so many avenues towards communication.
Sydnie Kohara: Well, look at us, we’re doing this by zoom. I mean, how can we incorporate this sort of virtual communication into that? How can we keep a dedicated space open so that people can always find the latest information? I mean, we’ve got our phones, can there be a way that we sort of organize this so that everyone, especially the Latinx community that I know, the station in Santa Rosa, California, was there to help them? But how can we make sure that everyone, no one has to wait for that information? And I think there’s a way to do it. But again, let’s start thinking about it before the next fire. We’d better hurry up because it’s a little scary out here right now with the drought?
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Yeah. We don’t seem to have a lot of space between fires either. And also to respect the different ways that people take on information. Like seniors, they need phone calls, and they’ll watch the news. So you think about that. As a broadcaster, they’re going to watch this podcast, but they are going to watch your colleagues on the news. And they prefer a phone call, so they’re not going to check Twitter. That’s not necessarily what they’re going to do. Now, when my generation enters into our 70’s, then people will be like, well, what the older people want is Twitter, what we used to use. But for now, they want phone calls. And for the Latinx community, it’s really KPBS. Alicia Sanchez, and she operates on a shoestring. We paid for PSH during COVID, because we knew that people would. Because COVID and fire season, we had those two comorbidities last year, that we knew that that’s where, especially our firmer grid community, that’s where they were returning to for their information. So to make sure that they get it before, because they may never get to that official channel. And I was happy that CAL FIRE now always has a Spanish translation press conference immediately following. I want to commend them for how far they’ve come, every agency. And then also encourage them to go even further.
“Try to be as self-sufficient as possible. Try to take care of yourself and be prepared yourself. Don’t wait for government officials or the fire department to tell you to get out. Be very aware of your surroundings.” – Sydnie Kohara
Sydnie Kohara: All I know is every fire truck, every time, CAL FIRE, I love CAL FIRE. I tried to donate to our local fire stations. I just love, love, love them. I mean, they put their lives on the line for all of us. When the fire is here, I remember going to the coffee shop and just buying pounds of coffee just to give it to the fire stations that need it. Whatever I can do to help. To me, that was how I could help at that particular time. But Jennifer, one of the things that I think is really important too that we should talk about is to try to be as self-sufficient as possible. Try to take care of yourself. Try to be prepared yourself. Don’t wait for government officials, don’t wait for the fire department to tell you to get out. Be very aware of your surroundings. One of the things that I know after covering Hurricane Katrina and covering fires and floods is, let me not be a victim. Let me try to take the best care I can of myself so I’m able to help other people. My husband and I, if we get separated, we already know. Call my sister so that we can check in with them. I’m not going to wait for them to tell me to evacuate. I will probably leave early. My husband might be a little bit more stubborn, but I’ve already mapped out. In an extreme emergency, who is close to me might have a swimming pool, or is there a lake or a pond? What’s the closest vineyard, if I need to run into the middle of this vineyard?
Someone up in Lake County, California who was telling me about evacuating during the fires up there said: “Sydnie, get a bicycle, put it in the back of your car and you drive as far as you can.” When you can’t drive anymore, you get on that bicycle and you go. Little things like that. I don’t ever go under three quarters of a tank in my car of gas. We park our cars heading out of the garage all the time. It’s just become very natural. Now, I try to keep supplies. I kind of drink all the water, and then I try to put more in there. But we always have a little bit of cash. Because the ATM, you know what happened the last fire, you know the gas, there’s no gas, there’s no ATM. How can we make sure that we’re doing our part to be ready. But as long as I’m okay, my husband is okay, I get my cat, and maybe get my chickens to safe ground, and then I can help my neighbors. So that’s really important to me. What can I do first to just be as prepared as I can, I’ve scouted every place in Sonoma. I sort of know where I might be, it was an emergency where I might need to go or would go at this point, but I will get out of town before they ask me to get out of town. And I will make sure that I check on my neighbors. I know that our county just put together these little tags that you can put on your house that say EVACUATED, that gives them a few more minutes. They can search another house, they don’t have to worry about yours. I have one, and I’ve distributed it to my neighbors. We know the neighbors that we will need to check on. It’s just like everyone else sort of has a plan, where might you go if something happens? Especially if you have children, make sure that you know that there’s some sort of plan.
We live in an area here in Sonoma County, we are one of 14 of the worst areas to escape from in an emergency area called Fetters Hot Spring. I remember Public Radio did a whole piece on 50 something places where there were only one or two escape routes. We happen to live in one of them. If we go into this highway, everyone else is going to the same highway. So that’s why I’ve taken a look around my surroundings and said, where’s the nearest vineyard if I know I’m going to get stuck in traffic. After Paradise, California people are basically being killed in their cars. I mean, it was a horrible tragedy. I said, what can I do? How can I make sure that I’m ready for whatever comes? Second thing I would say is, I’ve learned not to look at my possessions, my house. I love my house. I love where I live. I love my chickens. I love the things in my home. But you know what? I’m trying not to be so precious when trying to say, can I get out alive? Can my husband get out alive? Can my cat, and then the rest? That’s it. I’m just trying not to worry so much about that. I mean, they’re in different decades and different times in the world. People lose everything. And can we still start over? I try to have that attitude about it. Nothing’s really precious to me anymore. If I can get out a few things, the documents and my Japanese grandmother’s Koto she brought on a boat from Japan. If yes, if I could, I will. But if I don’t, their lives are more important.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: They really are, having said that, though, do make sure that you videotape your home at the beginning of every season. As soon as our first Red Flag Warning, I go around and take 10 minutes on my cell phone, it’s automatically in the cloud. And just because if you do lose your home, it will save you months of agony. I have never heard of bicycles before today. But I do appreciate that as we have bicycles, and I’m like, oh, as soon as you have a Red Flag Warning, it’s true. Make sure you do have a go bag. I’ve said this many times in the podcast, but naked evacuations in a wildfire are an absolute reality. And they add trauma on to the trauma. But maybe that’s like one way to motivate people to actually do your go bag. You need to have a full set of clothes in there as well.
“Let me not be part of the problem, let me be part of the solution. And after covering all these other disasters, just go, just be aware of what more you could do.” – Sydnie Kohara
Sydnie Kohara: Exactly. When we were evacuating in 2017, I had neighbors getting out their wine, or they had some art. And my husband and I looked at each other and said nothing is important. Let’s get our documents and set of clothes. And that’s it. Now, you are right. I do not have a set of clothes that are in a bag. But that is something to definitely think about. I do have some steel toed boots, though, from platts disaster. Just little things like that. I just think that I’m smart enough to take care of myself for a while. What did they say, 72 hours after an earthquake. But let me not be part of the problem, let me be part of the solution. And that’s how I look at it. And after covering all these other disasters, just go, just be aware. Just be aware of what more you could do.
“Beware of the heroes and look for the helpers because helpers are the people who have thought ahead, or not there in any way for glory.” – Jennifer Gray Thompson
Jennifer Gray Thompson: It really does free you up to be a helper. And we always say like we were the heroes and look for the helpers, because the helpers are the people who have thought ahead, or not there in any way for glory, whatsoever. They’re just trying to figure out how to help their neighbors. I actually got a full face gas mask for Christmas from my husband that has a clear face so people can see my face. So I’m not scary, but I can’t actually breathe. But I want them to see my eyes and my mouth so that they feel comforted in that. But I also want to be able to breathe. So breathing, clothes and videotaping, and then I’ll trade you those tips for your bike tip.
Sydnie Kohara: Okay. I will trade that. I don’t have a gas mask. But I did ask for Valentine’s Day for a generator which I got, and my husband is very happy to get that for me. I’m just a very practical person. And I say, I don’t need anything, and I can do away with most things. But I think that’s really important. I will keep those tips in mind. Because like I said, every time the wind blows around here, I get sick to my stomach. I love our town, but I’ve got to be prepared so that I can be one of those helpers, as you said. Exactly.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: So Sydnie, I would like to close out today by weighing in on some best practices for maybe new journalists, or journalists who’ve been around for a while and are looking to increase their skill set with the anticipation that they’re going to have to cover quite a few disasters. And they’re also going to have to take care of themselves. It’s traumatic for everybody involved. So if you could give us your best practices as a journalist, and then also best practices for taking care of yourself as a journalist while witnessing what very traumatic events.
“We’re all journalists. We’re all storytellers. Everyone owns a phone that has a camera and a recorder.” -Sydnie Kohara
Sydnie Kohara: Let’s say, I’ll take the best practices as you’re becoming a journalist. And truthfully, Jennifer, we’re all journalists. We’re all storytellers now. With the tools, everyone owns a phone that has a camera and a recorder. I mean, we are all storytellers and journalists. And what I would say for aspiring journalists, or people who find themselves in that situation, somewhere along the way, you’re going to be in a situation where you can help. Tell a story that someone else isn’t close enough to tell or isn’t part of. I would just say to aspiring journalists, number one, understand the power that you have. All the responsibility you have to tell a very strong but truthful story with the powerful tools that we all carry. Now that you are a person who can help tell the stories, every news outlet now has a way to contact and say, if you know something about this, can you tell us the story. So there are a lot of citizen journalists out there. And I would say, if the next fire comes and you are in a place where you can tell the story from the Latinx community beforehand, who you can contact to help share that story. Most people, it’s Facebook, Instagram or something. And the New York Times, they’re monitoring all of these. But understand how you might share that story in your community or a more personal story, or a more truthful story that may be journalists who are coming from somewhere else, the people know the place, what value can you add to those stories? And I think there’s a lot out there. Everyone, I think, could be a journalist.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: An ethical journalist.
Sydnie Kohara: Exactly.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Around disasters, there can be a bit of a blend there. And that’s true. I think that if you’re a citizen journalist, the one thing from a disaster perspective that I’m hoping for is that you share your resources that you want people who you are broadcasting to, to be able to go to those direct reads, those direct sources and get the information for themselves. You do not want them to wait, only be looking for all of their official information, especially if you’re an affiliate.
“Big deals don’t get done in a text and Facebook. Get out and meet people.” – Sydnie Kohara
Sydnie Kohara: As I said, you make a very, very good point. I got some old school, and I just want to believe that everyone is going to do the right thing, and do it the right way, and share it. And I’m just sort of old school like that. I want to trust that people will do the right thing for the right reason. So you’re absolutely right, Jennifer, it’s a different day and age. But I would say to get ready for something like that, the one thing that I noticed, especially with younger people, is make sure you’re able to talk to people, make sure that you are comfortable building these relationships, whether it’s in your own community. Big deals don’t get done in a text. And on Facebook, get out and meet people. Understand how people operate, get to know where they are, who to contact. One of the things I don’t see these days is a lot of reporters developing sources and things. If you’re in an area, get to know your law enforcement, get to know your firefighters, get to know your neighbors, there may be some great, great stories in there. And like I said, I know you wanted me to do it more to journalists, but I really think everyone in this day and age can tell those stories of compelling stories, and knock on wood that it’s done ethically, and for all the right reasons,
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Actually, your points are better than mine, to be honest. Because we are all telling the story. We are on Facebook, we have our own media channels now. And yeah, really, just a number of best practices. I hadn’t really thought about that in the same way. So I appreciate that perspective. And I think that you are correct. And my only thing is, name it, time it and then also source it.
“In a disaster, show what you see, tell what you know, there’s no fuel to the fire you need to add. Give people the information that they need.” – Sydnie Kohara
“Try to put yourself in the shoes of the person who’s suffering and who you’re asking to tell a story. Make sure they understand you’re there for the right reasons.” – Sydnie Kohara
Sydnie Kohara: You don’t have to insert yourself into the story. I think that you can just tell someone’s story, and tell it from their perspective and not offer your opinion about it. I mean, things have changed so much journalism. But just in a disaster situation, just show what you see, there’s no fuel to the fire you need to add. Give people the information that they need about where things are, what’s happening, why it’s happening, who are we going to be looking to give us advice and information. I think, you don’t have to wait for a disaster. Get to know that people around you, get to know your neighbors, start telling those stories first so that when the disaster comes, people will be more likely talk to you, not just one of the hardest parts. I remember going into a place, New Orleans, and asking people to tell me the worst parts of what’s happening in their life. I always preface it when I was there. I said, Listen, I’m from Louisiana, I’m from Alexandria. I tried to give them a sense that I’m from this area, and I sympathize with you. I’m not just some network news reporter coming and trying to exploit what I see, because you’re a really good story, or really good visual, or something like that. But try to put yourself, number one, in the shoes of the person who’s suffering, and the person who you’re asking to tell a story. And that was pretty important for me to make sure they understand you’re there for the right reasons.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I love that. So my last question is, how do you take care of your own physical and emotional health, and the trauma of witnessing this. Because this is something we’ve also seen for the last, almost four years. Pat Kerrigan was on the podcast a couple months ago, and she broadcasted from KSRO for like 24 days straight. She wrung herself to the bone for that job, and she ended up in treatment for alcoholism. She’s been very forthright and honest about that. And now, she’s entering back. She’s back in a different capacity. It was a lot of lessons, though, about, you are a witness, you’re also a survivor. So how to balance that?
Sydnie Kohara: No, it’s hard. Actually, I remember covering the fire and volunteering to give food down to San Diego. And I remember crying on air. Of course, one day, the reporter said, oh, she did that for the camera. But it means, it bubbles up in you, you’re not supposed to let it affect you. But yes, off the air, I’ve cried a crazy time. I remember being in an RV with a bunch of these guys, and just wanting to, I just couldn’t take it anymore. And I said, I can’t get out of here, but I gotta keep doing my job. I’m so tired. I think what you have to do is just put it in perspective in the sense that all I could do, what I could do today, don’t worry about tomorrow, don’t worry about yesterday and just say, can I take care of myself? Can I take care of my family? There’s still times, just like I said, I can’t look at videos from the 1989 earthquake,because it really is hard for me. I don’t know why. But I think for me, I think I tried to talk to people, and I didn’t have to talk to a professional channel.
But if you have that opportunity, do. But talking it out with people, and I think the one thing working in a newsroom for so long, we quickly just, you talk about what happened. You talked about things, you talked about how to cover it. It sort of got it out because you were talking about now. When people went home, it was a different story. It was very, very tough. But you say, did I make a difference today? Did I help? What could I do? Did I do it? And just understand that anything you do, that could be part of the solution and part of helping people. Whether it’s telling a story, or whether it’s offering someone a place to live for a couple of days, do what you can. And sometimes, you just have to take care of yourself.
But for me, personally, I think a cocktail every once in a while certainly helped. And then just to understand that, can I get strength too? I was fortunate that my house did not burn this time, can I help other people? We wound up housing for a couple of families for a couple of months. So we did what we could do. Just to make sure if there is going to be stress in your life, make sure you’ve tried to plan ahead. And maybe it’s not as much stress, maybe you already have that disaster plan, or you know where you’re going to go if there’s an emergency, or you have enough gas, or you have a little bit of money to be able to get out of town or to help someone else. So I think the pre planning for me, the disaster preparedness helps a lot with the mental part as well. But it could get to you. Sometimes, you do have to turn off the news. You just have to walk outside and just be thankful for whatever little thing you have.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: And to remember that it’s okay to be fully human. And when you need to cry? Cry. That’s okay. A friend called me from out of town in my car, and then when I had to go be a leader in front of other people, I could hold it together because I had a soft place or a soft group of people where I could lose my, you know what?
“Sometimes, it’s not going to be pretty and it’s not going to be easy, but we’re going to make it, and we’re going to move on and move forward, oftentimes, to a better place.” – Sydnie Kohara
Sydnie Kohara: The hardest part I remember is when the firemen came to our house and they said, you gotta get out. Fire is coming your way, and you’ll probably lose your house. My husband and I stood on the deck. I had his retirement bottle, bourbon. He said: “Don’t open that, just open some other stuff.” Had a couple of shots. Watching my husband cry, it’s just the hardest thing. And I’m going, why am I being strong? I’m usually the one who falls apart in the smallest thing. I just said: “You know what? “If something happens, we’re a team, we’re gonna make it, we’re gonna get through this together.” And yes, don’t worry, I was the one who broke down a thousand times. You just have to talk about it and be strong. And then you move on. We’re all in this together, we’re gonna make it. Sometimes, it’s not going to be pretty. And sometimes, it’s not going to be easy, but we’re gonna make it, and we’re going to kind of move on and move forward. Oftentimes, to a better place.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Actually, I can think of no better place to end the podcast on that hopeful note, and also the message of collaboration and helping your neighbor. And thank you so much, Sydnie Kohara for being on how to disaster.
Sydnie Kohara: Oh, Jennifer, this was such a pleasure. I hope that this helps. And in some form or fashion, there are a lot of people out there who are going to be ready. I know they’re going to be ready for the next disaster. Thank you.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Oh, well. Anyway, thanks to my team. So thank you again.