Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Hurricane Katrina and My Reporting

At lunch yesterday as I munched on my canned tuna, Zesta saltines, and baby carrots, I for once paid attention to the television in the break room. Hurricane Katrina was on her miserable march up Louisiana and Mississippi, leaving little room for stupidity. Yet CNN had an innumerable supply of reporters, borrowed and their own, feeding them live footage of themselves getting wind-whipped and rain-soaked. Collectively, I believe they were, as my friend Chris put it, "an idiot for being out in it with a raincoat and a mic." Obviously a substantial chunk of the population believes they need this type of sensationalism with their news. We know hurricanes damage things and kill people, and it's horrible. Do we really want to put more people out there in it just to satisfy our desire for live coverage? If you need footage that badly, post a weatherproof camera on a building or something.

At the same time, I do feel a bit for the reporters sent to those scenes. Most of them don't sign up as reporters specifically to put themselves in harm's way like that. Jumping jobs from journalism to some other field is not a decision one makes based on something that happens once or twice a year. "Nope, sorry, boss, I'm just going to skip this one." Well, that doesn't really happen if you want to keep getting paid.

That said, I was a newspaper reporter/photographer for about a year, so I know that the danger can be somewhat intoxicating, as well as saddening. I covered fires, accidents, and even the murder of a man I knew.

There's a strange disconnect that occurs when reporting a scene, especially when behind the camera. Just that viewfinder could make me feel I was only watching. Fortunately for me, the worst weather events I covered were ice storms. If the roads were icy and there was a pileup on a bridge, I was right there on the bridge, on foot, in case any sliders-by needed a human target.

I went to house and car fires in progress, and followed ambulances to crash scenes. If it was just a fender-bender, then we didn't bother. I could have made quite a lucrative business of toting a lawyer's business card for kickbacks.

In the only fatal accident I covered, I saw the mother of the dead teenage boy, beside her son's flipped Jeep Cherokee, sobbing so deeply I would have been compelled to comfort her if nobody else had been there. I snapped a few pics, loathing the fact that I was capturing what might be the most painful moment in her life, yet being careful to compose good shots. Then I had to start asking those on the scene what happened. I think that's when I realized that business was not for me.

The danger thrill hit me hard during one particularly nasty house fire. That fire department had to cover a 62-square mile area without benefit of a big budget, so if your house caught on fire, it was best to enjoy the show and hope your insurance coverage was as good as you thought. The story goes that the wind had blown the guy's turkey cooker over, snapping the gas line to create a flamethrower with a two-story deck as kindling.

I showed up, parked my Mitsubishi Mirage as close as I could without getting in the way, then ran to the scene, stepping over leaking firehoses all the way. Firefighters would call me back, and I would rush in from another angle. Nobody had been hurt, and large house fires can make for beautiful photographs. Oddly enough, a firefighter taking a break pointed out an octagonal window with blue flame dancing behind it. I wondered if the reporter I replaced had won his firey spot news photography award thanks to a hoseman with an eye. I stopped after realizing I was walking close enough not only to be backed up by the heat, but close enough that no unprotected firefighter was anywhere near me.

I also showed up on a car fire scene to take pictures about three feet away from the car's smoking innards as the firefighters doused it. It wasn't the smartest thing to do, but it was my job.

Just as it was my job to cover the murder of a man I had interviewed only a few months earlier.

Our daily's managing editor called me to ask about the disappearance of local marina manager Dave Howard back in 1999. As I gathered information, I found the authorities frantically doing the same. From the local county detective to the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation, I talked to everyone who might be in a position to look at this case. He was last seen alive in Bella Vista, Arkansas, and was found dead beside the freeway in Oklahoma. Had I read about it in a newspaper, I might have thought it was exaggerrated. Because I was the one covering it, however, I knew it was real. Evidence showed he had been in an Internet love affair that resulted in the jealous husband allegedly setting him up and shooting him. I say allegedly because the guy has not been brought to justice yet. I cannot find my story online, but it's a fascinating story, recapped here in March of this year. He was denied a new trial, but plans to appeal, which will be in about a year. Great system, huh?

I got into journalism after a stint as a Web programmer left me wanting to write, but not write code. Took a 50% cut in pay and moved us 230 miles to do it. I found out that being a reporter was not in my blood. On the occasion I got to write a column, I was ecstatic. That was my favorite part. Maybe that's why I blog.

No comments: