Expert Commentary

Reporting on crisis, disaster, homeland security: Tips from Juliette Kayyem

2015 conversation with Juliette Kayyem, a Harvard University lecturer and national leader in homeland security. She offers advice on how journalists can better cover disasters and hold accountable the government agencies that respond to and manage emergency events.

Juliette Kayyem (Kent Dayton)
Juliette Kayyem (Kent Dayton)

Juliette Kayyem is a national leader in homeland security and crisis management. When she served as President Obama’s assistant secretary for intergovernmental affairs at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, she played a key role in the government’s response to the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. Previously, she had been the homeland security adviser to Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick.

Today, Kayyem owns Juliette Kayyem Solutions, a Massachusetts-based consulting and analysis company, and lectures on public policy as part of Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. She’s also a national security, intelligence and terrorism analyst for CNN. In 2015, she launched a new podcast, “Security Mom,” for WBGH News in Boston. Her new book, Security Mom: An Unclassified Guide to Protecting Our Homeland and Your Home, is scheduled for release in 2016.

As part of Journalist’s Resource’s ongoing “research chat” series, we recently sat down with Kayyem to ask her about the media’s role in covering crises such as natural disasters and terrorist attacks. During the interview, she offered us insights on how U.S. governments handle emergencies. She also gave us a number of tips on how journalists can do a better job covering these high-profile events, including taking a more critical view of government’s actions and decisions.

Some key takeaways for journalists:

  • Familiarize yourself with the federal government’s Incident Command System (ICS) and that of your local and state governments. An ICS is a hierarchical management system that allows governments to respond to emergencies through the coordination of various agencies, personnel, equipment and facilities. Being familiar with these systems will help you understand what you are observing when you are in the field covering an emergency. Knowing how these systems are set up and work also will help you spot potential problems and ask more probing questions.
  • Develop relationships with officials who oversee emergency management before an emergency occurs. And those relationships should extend beyond police and fire departments. Often, the top-level officials who coordinate emergency responses will not be law-enforcement officers or firefighters.
  • Read case studies. Government leaders read case studies to understand the dynamics of emergencies that already have occurred and to scrutinize governments’ past responses to those emergencies. A good resource is the book Managing Crises: Responses to Large-Scale Emergencies, edited by Arnold M. Howitt and Herman B. Leonard.
  • Review local governments’ emergency-management plans to understand their individual roles better. This will give you a chance to identify potential problems and ask questions before an emergency occurs. It is a good idea to also sit in on some of the regular meetings that government officials hold to discuss and fine-tune their emergency-management plans. Ask to be allowed to observe simulations.
  • Be cautious about acting on or reporting about assumptions. Journalists who are under intense pressure to get information quickly sometimes make assumptions and present them as facts. Not only can this mislead your audience and hurt your professional reputation, but it also could have unintended consequences in terms of audience reactions to the bad information.

Denise-Marie Ordway of Journalist’s Resource spoke with Kayyem. The following is an edited transcript:


Journalist’s Resource: As you know, journalists often are among the first responders to the scene of a tragedy, whether it’s a major accident, a terrorist attack or a natural disaster such as a tornado or earthquake.  Can you share your thoughts about this and help us understand government and emergency officials’ perspective? For example, are journalists seen as a help or a hindrance in this respect?

Juliette Kayyem: I always begin with the story that circulates in emergency-management circles: When you get the phone call at 3 o’clock in the morning, go back to sleep. The joke is because in 15 minutes, the news you heard will either be proven false or you will have needed those 15 minutes to regroup and then go out and deal with the disaster. In other words, disasters are called disasters for a reason. They unfold in organized ways in a lot of circumstances, but also require a lot of pivoting by first responders. So the lack of clarity to a journalist looking at it does not mean that there is a lack of clarity.

So one of the first things that I always recommend to journalists is to familiarize yourself with the basic attributes of disaster management. It’s something called Incident Command System, or ICS, if I can recommend it. You can just go online and I think there is an “ICS for non-first responders.” It just explains how an incident-command structure looks so that when you come to the disaster, it may look like a bunch of parallel things going on, but they’re actually managed through quite a hierarchical system run by an incident commander. And when the incident commander is weak like in Hurricane Katrina, that’s when you see the system fall apart.

I think there has been a tremendous change in disaster management vis-à-vis journalists, mostly because of the feeling that what you can’t beat, you better join. I think because of the onslaught of Twitter and Facebook and, you know, no one really waits for the press conferences anymore, I think people in my field are much more receptive to the power of the media to get information out. To protect people, which is of primary importance, but also to describe what is going on. So I think that there has been a change and so people in the field now are much more receptive. Now look, there are still those traditional cops who are like “Ah, I hate the media.” But, for the most part, I think people have come to accept the need to engage the media because bad information on Twitter or wherever else can actually risk lives.

JR: At Harvard, you teach graduate students who will be new leaders in the areas of emergency management and homeland security. What do you tell them about working with the media?

Juliette Kayyem:  I talk to them mostly about mistakes because I think that’s the only way you can have lessons learned. I think, in some ways, there is a philosophical challenge between the media wanting to focus on the bad and disaster management being about trying to minimize the bad. So there is always going to be a disconnect because, obviously, there is going to be bad news. It’s a fricking disaster. There’s no good news here – at least not for a while. I was director of incident command for the BP oil spill and I look back at that now and I think, operationally, it wasn’t ideal. I think we did pretty good. I mean, I like to say we saved an ocean. And the fact that we don’t talk about the BP oil spill anymore was success. I think on the media side, though, we failed in setting the conditions of success. I think we failed affirmatively and then we failed by omission.

Affirmatively, I think we — the government, the Obama administration — made it sound like we were doing so much that we were in control of this disaster. Well, you know we had 29 days between the time the rig went down and the time oil hit shore. Anyone who has worked with oil and water knows to dream on if you think you’re going to capture everything. So we, unfortunately, set the criteria of success as no oil on shore – no oil on shore is failure, instead of [saying] “Look, everyone, oil is going to hit shore because anyone who mixes oil and water knows it’s impossible to get oil out.” So our standard of success is less oil hitting shore than would have but for our effort. It’s really hard to set the conditions of success that way because we like binary. In a disaster, it’s not binary. If there’s anything to learn it is to educate or at least try to amplify what the conditions of success are. You know,  in my field,  let’s just be honest here – it’s totally legitimate to say only 3,000 people died in the Twin Towers when you think there might have been 47,000 people there on any given Tuesday morning. You can’t say that, right? Because, of course, it’s a tragedy that 3,000 people died. But in a world in which fewer people dying, less oil hitting shore is success, we’ve got to learn to communicate that better. And my field is bad at that.

JR: What websites, blogs, journals or other resources would you recommend to journalists who write about emergency management as part of their beat or who are required to write about a tragic event on occasion?

Juliette Kayyem: People don’t realize disaster management is a policy and it’s called the Incident Command System or NIMS, which is the National Incident Management System. But, basically, if you type up “Incident Command System,” I think you can take an online tutorial for like an hour and it’s free.  FEMA gives them for free. You can just figure out, “Oh wait, what does a disaster look like? What does this system look like?” In short, the Incident Command System is a hierarchical system run by an incident commander who may be a cop, but may be a fire chief, may be an emergency manager. And it’s a way of organizing all the pieces of a disaster. They’re called  … you know, like housing, transportation, public health, sheltering — all the different pieces that you’re going to want to focus on in a disaster. They’re called Emergency Support Functions. It just describes sort of how this hierarchical system folds out so that when someone comes to a disaster and they see a bunch of people who look like they’re not doing anything, they may be the people running finance, which is really important in a disaster. You need to move money fast. So the fact that it looks like they’re just on phones or they’re waiting for something — it means nothing. So get yourself familiar with the system.

The other thing is I think most people view homeland security at large as simply TSA [Transportation Security Administration]. And that’s not good. So there are a number of guides to what is homeland security. The National Governors Association has written a new governors’ guide to homeland security that sort of lays out every piece of homeland security because it’s such a big docket. And it’s something to look at to just sort of see, from the states’ side, what it looks like. And then on the federal side, the Department of Homeland Security has written QHSR — Quad Homeland Security Review — policy and it sort of lays out the pieces that the department touches. Now those are all government resources, but at least it will give reporters some understanding of how the system works. Doesn’t mean it works every time, but that’s essentially it.

JR: Do you draw on academic materials?

Juliette Kayyem:  The academic literature is just starting to be a more rigorous academic discipline in the homeland security field. But it’s not there yet. There are not a lot of books solely on disaster management. So what I often rely on are case studies. The [Harvard] Kennedy School and other schools have great case study programs. I think [for] leadership and disasters, understanding disaster, you just have to look at old disasters. What happened with the tsunamis, what actually happened with Hurricane Katrina? Arnold Howitt and Dutch Leonard have a great book of case studies of disasters. They don’t really answer the tough questions. They just sort of lay out all of the dynamics that were happening that explain why some things weren’t working and others were and some of the challenges for leadership. So that’s another thing that I recommend. For me, it’s always the case studies.

JR: As someone who has spent many years organizing government responses to major crises in both state and federal government, I’m sure you’ve made observations about what journalists generally do well and what they generally don’t do well when covering such issues. Can you share some examples of what journalists don’t usually do well and how they might do things better?

Juliette Kayyem: I think I don’t have the journalist gene even though I was a columnist. Like this desire to be first — I just don’t get. Because I believe it will inevitably be wrong or it will screw up in some way. I kind of feel like: “Why does it matter?” But that’s just me.  I work for CNN and they obviously feel otherwise. During the Boston Marathon, I was on air with John King when he falsely stated an arrest had been made. Now I knew an arrest had not been made because I’d been in major cities where an arrest had been made and it did not feel like it. You know, when a major arrest has been made, there are helicopters everywhere and everything. I said on air: “I’m not so sure about this.” That was really hard to do. But I think that sort of stands as a perfect example in which a mayor or a leader will talk in a certain way. [Mayor] Menino was simply suggesting we knew who the guys were. In other words, we had their pictures. We had no idea who they actually were. That was mistranslated. So I would say to journalists: Are you speaking the same language as the person who’s talking to you? When a mayor or someone says “We know who they are,” what does that actually mean? You say you think you know what it means. So that really hurt a company that has been very good to me, a media company that’s been very good to me — a media company that, whatever its flaws, people turn to CNN. They want it to be right.

When reporters stick with the story, I think it’s really important. These disasters … the BP oil spill was an odd example because it was so long term. It was 100 days. But going back and seeing, you know, what does resiliency look like and what actually was the story there? Those are all really important. Or sticking around. The reporters that stick around past the limelight are the ones who I think get the most honest stories.

JR: What about things they do well? Does anything stand out? A particular news agency or scenario?

Juliette Kayyem:  You know, it’s going to be so case specific. Long form for disaster – long form is always so interesting. Magazine articles or books on Hurricane Katrina or even novels that relate it. A lot of documentaries do it well because they get the nuance of the disaster. The daily reporting – generally, it is good. I just think it’s just so over the top. Not everything is breaking news – let’s just put it that way.

JR: In times of tragedy – especially immediately after tragedy has struck — journalists and government officials usually are working in an environment filled with stress and uncertainty. Can you offer some tips to help journalists work better with emergency officials and government officials to get accurate and up-to-date information?

Juliette Kayyem:  Well I mean, look, there is going to be the formal joint-information command system through which they are going to be getting information. I think trying to be paired with emergency managers — not even the head person, but someone else who is going out in the field — just to see how it works. I think understanding that government never would view itself as being the sole first responder. I often tell journalists coming to disasters: “Do you know how many people work at FEMA?” And they are always off by multiples of thousands. It’s 2,700 people. FEMA is an organizing entity that brings together all the different stakeholders at a disaster, including private sector — like a Walmart or nonprofits, like churches, synagogues, others. So a lot of times, I think reporters can think ‘government’ or ‘not government’ and think that there’s a gap or a tension. I think one way is to go out and see that government can create the web where others engage. It doesn’t mean they’re in conflict. It means, actually, that they are working together or that they are trying to work together.

So I think that can only be seen out in the field. That means not just sticking around government. How are non-governmental entities engaging in the disaster and the response?  How are individuals engaging in the response and then also the private sector? What Walmart did during Hurricane Katrina that FEMA couldn’t was just absolutely remarkable. You know, it’s often viewed as “Walmart came to the rescue.” I don’t think Walmart saw it that way. I think Walmart thought: “Government needs our help. We’re going to engage in this enterprise to try to save people.” So I think that that’s an interesting way to see these dynamics.

JR: You recommend that journalists pair up with officials from emergency management to learn how things are done. Should that happen before tragedy occurs?

Juliette Kayyem: Before hurricane season, if you’re a local journalist, don’t wait to go to the bunker of the emergency-management agency. Ask: “Can I go through a walk through?” and “How are you gearing up for this?” Ask to sit in on a table top. Government agencies with NGOs [Non-Government Organizations] and private-sector partners constantly are exercising, doing simulations, exercises — what we call table tops. Ask to sit in there — no attribution. Just to get a sense of “Oh my gosh, how would this actually work?” And get a sense of the gaps in the planning. And so, have a strong working relationship with the emergency-management apparatus as compared to the police officers. Because very few disasters are going to be cop-run. In fact, in natural disasters, they are going to be part of public safety and security. They’re [law enforcement] not going to be in charge. So make sure that reporters access the right piece of the apparatus.  And, for example, if you are in a maritime community, get with the Coast Guard. Because chances are if you’re going to have a maritime disaster, Coast Guard will be lead.

JR: How difficult would it be for a journalist to get that kind of access?

Juliette Kayyem:  I think in a non-disaster relationship — if you show good-faith interest — relatively easy. Because for the most part, our jobs are waiting and they’re exercising and planning and figuring out budgets and getting people trained. So if someone is interested during those gap times, then people are thrilled. Because then what happens, after a bad thing happens, it’s a freaking disaster and everyone knows it’s bad. There are only bad stories. And the incident command officer is there saying: “Where the heck were all of you when we were saying, ‘If something bad happens, here’s how it’s going to work?’” You know? And so I think we need to explain what the apparatus looks like.

JR: There has been a lot of discussion about how Mexico, in October 2015, was able to escape the strongest hurricane ever recorded in the Western Hemisphere with no deaths. Some say the country escaped serious tragedy because it had prepared well for Hurricane Patricia. Can you talk about the role of journalists in emergency preparedness? Does the news media do a good job preparing communities for the kinds of disasters for which you can prepare on some level?

Juliette Kayyem: It’s the government’s responsibility to engage people — utilizing the media, but preparing them [people] for the things that they can actually do. I’m very critical of my apparatus. You know, we spent 15 years talking in a way that either made people freak out or tune out — one or the other, and nothing in between. And I think it’s really, really important that we empower people with the tools necessary. And I think journalists can amplify that. I think the Mexico hurricane — or non-hurricane– is the perfect example. That was a reaction guided by science. And if the science changes, who cares? “Thank God” is all I have to say. Everything went well with that. People were going to die if the weather didn’t change. I think the way that the media amplified it was really important because I think it just told people there’s no messing around here.

JR: Are journalists asking the right questions when it comes to emergency-preparedness issues?

Juliette Kayyem:  The best question to ask is: “What is success, what’s the standard of success?” Because in a disaster, it’s hard to judge. And then begin to think about it. An incident commander will have that answer. Our first priority is to get the roads open. They’re going to have a list of successes. Part of it is having the journalists understand the standards of success, knowing we start from a bad-news story.

JR: What can they be doing to better hold these agencies accountable?

Juliette Kayyem:  Hold them to the standard of success. A journalist can’t come into a disaster and think: “Well, this is a mess. It’s bad, and they’re not doing their job.” Yes, it’s bad. This is not a Disney cruise. This is really bad stuff happening. So holding government accountable to the delivery of services, to the training and practices that they hold themselves to is really important. But they [journalists] have to know those things first. That’s why you have to educate yourself beforehand. And I think the apparatus is very receptive to that.


Other resources: A May 2015 report from the Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma at Columbia University, “Covering Natural Disaster in Nepal,” offers insights into the challenges of covering earthquakes in Nepal. The Dart Center also offers a 40-page guide for reporters, titled “Tragedies & Journalists: A Guide for More Effective Coverage.” The International Center for Journalists’ guide “Disaster and Crisis Coverage” also provides important insights and tips.


Keywords: terrorism, disaster, Hurricane Katrina, BP oil spill, Deepwater Horizon, trauma

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