On Monday, August 7 Hawai’i News Now Maui multimedia journalist Chelsea Davis went to a sushi bar for dinner with friends in Waluku. When she got home one of her friends called to say the power was out. She went to bed not knowing that the lives of everyone in Hawai’i were about to change.
“I woke up (the next) morning to two fires, one in Lahaina, the other one in Kula,” she said. Kula is located in an area known locally as Upcountry.
”Torn on where to go first I decided to go Upcountry first, then head to Lahaina after because, at that time, Upcountry seemed to be the bigger fire.”
The area was under a red flag warning, meaning fire danger was high. The wind picked up in the afternoon and was so strong it kept knocking over her tripod.
After her last live report at 6pm she went to Lahaina and learned the situation there was much worse.
The fire ignited passion, unity, and pain in the hearts of Hawaii residents. It also posed a plethora of lessons for reporters.
Davis spoke on a panel hosted by the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) Region 11 conference in Honolulu. Various stakeholders in Hawaii-based media shared their experiences on reporting and consuming news from the Lahaina fire.
“This is a different kind of story for us than it is for the rest of the world,” said retired Associated Press reporter, Dave Briscoe. “The hellscape that was created in Hawai’i [from Lahaina], it’s still there. It’s even worse than 9/11. It’s not two buildings; it was a whole town of people living all kinds of lives.“
Briscoe said Lahaina is the biggest story across all the Hawaiian Islands and likely to remain so for the foreseeable future.
The scale of the disaster fueled the mass reporting that occurred after the fire. Local news outlets had reporters on the island before the ignition.
Davis was the first reporter on the story and spoke about the difficulty of having a strong connection to the community while immediately knowing that her role as a reporter was a priority in sharing the severity of damage for the island she holds close to her heart, and the community members she grew up around.
“It’s still so hard to take it all in,” Davis said. “I remember getting stopped by a resident and you can tell he didn’t trust me. After all, why should he? I was a stranger with a camera, but I explained to him that people who weren’t in Lahaina had no idea what happened or how bad the destruction was. He needed to share what happened on camera so we could show the world.” she said.
Being from Maui allowed Davis to remove the barrier that normally exists between outsiders and victims. Reporting on your own community can be a conflict of interest in journalism, but in Hawaii, “There’s a different type of respect. You don’t come in here as a continental reporter and think that you know everything, even though you have a lot of experience, you show up with humility,” said Annalisa Burgos, Hawaii News Now reporter and faculty member in the School of Journalism, University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa.
While uplifting community voices and navigating the situation with a certain sensitivity, there were other lessons for both reporters and producers. The role of social media in this case proved valuable for reporters.
There were numerous videos posted on social media of active fires and scenes from Lahaina but that presented its own set of challenges..
“We relied on what the people were sending us as well as trying to confirm it, talking to them, and trying to get their clearance,” said Brenda Salgado, Hawai’i News Now Assistant News Director.
“You have to think on your feet, confirm what you’re getting, and move forward with it.”
The videos captured by residents became the center of attention for the international community throughout the duration of the fire. Though instrumental in spreading a message, the lack of cellphone service was an obstacle that required an old-fashioned approach.
Knowing there was no method of information transfer, Salgado used Starlink for communication, backpacks for resources and company materials that were already on Maui.
“Technology failed us in West Maui because everything collapsed. I can see how valuable technology is, but it didn’t work in that case, and that’s when we went back to the basics of journalism.” Davis said.
Disconnected in terms of communication was no obstacle in sharing this story to the state, and eventually the world. Coverage of Lahaina spread across continents, leaving watchers dismayed at the sight of such destruction. Though difficult for admirers of the island, some who live within the archipelago confronted the feeling of dismay for those affected.
“Were separated by islands, you would think we may not be as interconnected as we are, but when anything happens on these islands, we all feel it.” said Briscoe.
A running theme throughout the panel was the value of taking care of yourself while reporting on difficult situations. Some reporters who cover catastrophic events like natural disasters or wars, can encounter Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
It is paramount that reporters take time to decompress from such traumatic events, as well as find resources to better themselves, or talk it out if necessary.
During her presentation, Davis broke down several times and admitted she – and the rest of Hawaii – will need time to recover from the trauma of Lahaina.