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Tips on writing human interest stories of earthquakes & other tragedies

Tips on writing human interest stories while reporting on earthquakes & other tragedies

(continued from yesterday’s post: Covering earthquakes and other tragedies/ Reporting on earthquakes)

From: “Tragedies & Journalists” published by the  Dart Center,  a project of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, written by Joe Hight and Frank Smyth (Joe Hight is the president of the Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma’s Executive Committee;  led a team of The Oklahoman reporters that covered the 1995 Oklahoma bombing; the coverage won several national awards; Frank Smyth is a free-lance journalist , contributor to “Crimes of War: What the Public Should Know”, edited by Roy Gutman & David Rieff; Washington representative of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.)

“II. Writing About Victims

(blog admin’s note: this section is about writing a human-interest-piece on someone who was killed in the disaster: Don’t write it like a police report: give us an idea of who this person was from the eyes of those who knew him/her most; use imagery, but be accurate with your facts).

“Tips for writing about victims:

    “1.Focus on the person’s life. Find out what made the person special: personality, beliefs, environment (surroundings, hobbies, family and friends), and likes and dislikes. Treat the person’s life as carefully as a photographer does in framing a portrait.

     “2.Always be accurate. Check back with the victim or victim’s representative to verify spellings of names, facts and even quotes. The reason: When you first talk to a victim (or survivor – blog admin), he or she may be confused or distracted. Double-checking can ensure accuracy. It also may provide you with additional information and quotes that you can use.

     “3.Use pertinent details that help describe victims as they lived or provide images of their lives. Example: “Johnny loved to play the guitar in the evening to entertain his family, but it also helped him escape the stress of his job as a sheriff’s deputy.”

      “4.Avoid unneeded gory details about the victims’ deaths. After the Oklahoma City bombing, certain reporters chose not to reveal that body parts were dangling from the trees near the federal building. Ask yourself whether the images are pertinent or will do unnecessary harm to certain members of your readership or broadcast audience.

     “Also, avoid words and terms such as “closure,” “will rest in peace” or “a shocked community mourns the death.” Use simple and clear words as good writers do for any story.

      “5.Use quotes and anecdotes from the victim’s relatives and friends to describe the person’s life. Especially those that tell how the person had overcome obstacles. Seek current photos of the victim (but always return them as soon as possible). This way, you know what the person looked like in life.

  “III. Your Community

(“A community is much more than a mass killing or disaster.”)

“Tips for covering traumatic events in your community:

   “1.Understand that your coverage of a traumatic event will have an impact on your readership, viewers or listeners. Remember that the tone of your coverage may reflect the tone of the community’s reaction to it. Thus, you should establish policies that affect your coverage:      “For example, consider coverage of public memorial services for the victims, instead of private funerals. And, if you do cover private services, call the funeral home to ensure that you will not intrude.

     “2.Write stories about the victims’ lives and their effect on your community. These are short stories about the victims, their favorite hobbies, what made them special, and the ripple effect of their lives. In many cases, victims’ relatives want to talk when they realize that the reporter is writing these types of stories. In 1995 after the Oklahoma City bombing, The Oklahoman called these stories “Profiles of Life.” The Oklahoman also did “Profiles of Life” after the record F-5 tornado outbreak in May 1999 that killed 44 people and the plane crash in January 2000 that killed the 10 members of the Oklahoma State University basketball team and staff. After the September 11, 2001, World Trade Center attack, The New York Times called its short stories about the victims “Portraits of Grief.” The Asbury Park Press called its stories “In Tribute.” These short stories can be published daily in a similar format until all of the victims have been featured. They sometimes lead to bigger stories, too.

     “3.Provide forums on what people are thinking, especially words of encouragement. Offer lists for ways people can help and how they have helped. Frank M. Ochberg, M.D., executive committee chairman of the Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma, says, “Journalists and therapists face similar challenges when they realize their subjects are at risk of further injury. Techniques may differ, but objectives are the same: to inform about sources of help.”

     “4.Find ways people are helping, including acts of kindness, and report on them throughout the recovery process. This may provide hope for the community.

     “5.Constantly ask these questions: What does the public need to know and how much coverage is too much? When does a medium become infatuated with a story when the public is not? A community is much more than a mass killing or disaster. The coverage must reflect that.

                                 *** 

              (to be continued. hope this is useful.  can’t post right now,  checking and re-checking papers, will submit grades in a few days…)

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