When Disaster Strikes

By Kellye Coleman

When disaster strikes reporters are left with a daunting task. Gather information. Tell a story. Share it with the public. Continuously. With the addition of social and online media, the public’s expectation of receiving breaking news is greater than before, journalists posting meaningful updates online, while speaking with witnesses, and thinking about how to form a meaningful narrative.

A Team Effort

graphic by Kellye Coleman

However, working as a staff can make an immense difference. For instance, when planes crashed into the world trade centers, the Pentagon, and a field in Pennsylvania on 9/11, the Wall Street Journal sent out a team of more than 50 reporters and editors across the areas affected. These journalists vigilantly interviewed witnesses, recorded details, and sent them to Bryan Gruley, the senior editor in the Washington bureau of the paper. He took the information, stories, and details gathered to write a powerful narrative titled “Nation Stands in Disbelief and Horror.” The team’s efforts, and Gruley’s ability to synthesize 30,000 words of notes, led to a powerful story from all three areas struck by terrorism.

Reader-centric Philosophy

Award winning columnist Steve Lopez has written for numerous publications, but it was while working with the Los Angeles Times, writing a column titled “Points West,” that he displayed his ability to use strong, sound reporting to write a column about the 9/11 terrorists attacks from the perspective of a cab driver, Vincent. Lopez likes to ask questions about his audience as he writes and edits his stories. “Would I read this thing? Is this idea big enough? Am I advancing a story people already know about? Am I giving them something new and different to think about? Am I going to entertain them? Am I going to in form them?” This approach allows Lopez to be sure that his stories will have meaning and impact, while ensuring that they are grounded in solid reporting.

“Would I read this thing? Is this idea big enough? Am I advancing a story people already know about? Am I giving them something new and different to think about? Am I going to entertain them? Am I going to in form them?” – Lopez’s reader-centric philosophy

Clear and Concise

All news stories must be written in a way that is clear and concise, easy for an audience to understand. This can serve as a challenge for reporters writing about disasters taking place outside of the united states. Not only is it difficult to write in a way readers understand but also in a way that communicates the gravity or reality of a situation.

Mark Fritz, writer for the Los Angeles Times, is able to do this in his work, “Only Human Wreckage is Left in Karubamba.” He uses the experiences of individuals to tell the story. He provides cultural context as well, which increases the impact the story has.

“Nobody lives here any more.

Not the expectant mothers huddled outside the maternity clinic, not the families squeezed into the church, not the man who lies rotting in a schoolroom beneath a chalkboard map of Africa.

Everyone here is dead. Karubamba is a vision from hell, a flesh-and-bne junkyard of human wreckage, an obscene slaughterhouse that has fallen silent save for the roaring buzz of flies the size of honeybees.”

– Opening to Fritz’s “Only Human Wreckage is Left in Kaeubamba

Be a multimedia storyteller

Not only are the words reporters write important for storytelling, but the pictures are equally powerful in their ability to convey a message or story. A multimedia combination is desired by the public in this day and age. CNN’s coverage of the earthquake and subsequent Tsunami in Japan is a stunning example of this. Constant updates and compelling photos and videos were used to share the story. Updates were timely and had impact, characteristics audiences tend to be looking for.

The Dallas Morning News staff won a Pulitzer Prize in 2006 for their photographic coverage of Hurricane Katrina and it’s impact on individuals’ lives. The pictures depict the anguish and pain that permeated New Orleans after the hurricane.

Other Examples:

The Times-Picayune wrote a series of stories about the BP oil spill. One in particular highlights the individuals behind the clean up initiative.

The 2004 wildfires in California were covered by the Los Angeles Times. Their breaking news story appeals to the soul, the strong details and imagery paint a picture of the devastation that remained as the fires whipped through southern California.

A Violent Script That Defines Our Lives” by Bill Boyarsky uses the story of a bank robbery to highlight the issue of violence on television and the impact glamorization of violence can have on media consumers.


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