Reporting on disasters and crisis: Reaction to Chapter 8 of ‘America’s Best Newspaper Writing’

Chapter 8: Terrorism, war and disasters

Writing about terrorism, war and disasters is tricky, has to be accurate and on tight deadlines and is difficult to write. It’s hard to witness disaster, but people need information about what happens and the response to it. So reporters must go, witness, observe, interview, research and report.

These stories have vivid storytelling. They incorporate details, images, scenes and emotions to help readers understand the impact and what people are feeling and going through. This helps readers know what happened and feel some of what others are dealing with. These stories should “communicate the reality of the horror,” as Clark and Scanlan said.

Reporters who write about disasters and war must be somewhat hardened or able to deal with the tragedy themselves. They must find a way to check their emotions at the door and not let them infiltrate the story — because it is essential that the reporting remain objective. This takes a great deal of strength and resolve.

A lesson this chapter tries to teach is that reporters don’t have to strictly follow the five W’s and the H structure (who, what, where, why, when and how). The great writers in this chapter often wrote against or didn’t follow this strict structure, in how to set up their leads or the story. They went instead for a narrative lead, a scene-setting lead or a sentence that set the tone. This can work better than the structure of the five W’s and the H.

Like Richard Zahler, reporters should make the five W’s and the H work for them. Zahler wrote in ways where “Who becomes Character; What becomes Plot; Where becomes Setting; When becomes Chronology; Why becomes Motivation,” Clark and Scanlan said.

There’s a moral dimension of journalism that this chapter touches on. Journalism can offer stories about injustice, inequality, danger, conflict, war, disasters, corruption and so on — and the public has the right to know about these issues. This can be referred to as reporting for the public good. These stories can and do have power, with how the reporters write them, the details they use, who is offered as a voice in the story, the impact that is shown and the connection to readers that is made.

Stories should focus on the universal. They should show and connect the human aspect of a disaster, war or other event. This can help readers connect if they’re reading about tragedy from a faraway place, for example if they’re reading about the Rwandan genocide in Washington, D.C.

Anthony Shadid, one of the great writers mentioned in this chapter, tried to humanize the impact of war.

Sometimes it’s important to step back and listen, observe. Sometimes journalists don’t need to be talking and asking questions all the time — watching and listening can give them insight, details and events that they might have missed if they were focusing on asking and having a conversation with a source.

For Shadid’s story on the 14-year-old’s funeral in Baghdad, he “stepped back like a photographer to ‘capture the scene,’” Clark and Scanlan said.

Reporters also need to report — stories would not be stories without words, quotes from people. Without information and research. But acting like a photographer at times can be extremely worthwhile.

Additionally, sometimes it’s best not to follow the pack, not to go where the rest of the media is going and to search out your own stories. This is what Shadid did when he was in Baghdad. He went around the city, finding and writing stories that journalists otherwise wouldn’t have known about or reported, but nonetheless as important.

Research is extremely important. It helps the reporter know what he’s writing about and offers readers context they need to understand the story. Reporters should also be critical and practice creative thinking. It’s important for reporters to connect readers to stories, to natural and human-caused disasters, even if they are occurring far away from them. Clark and Scanlan said reporters and stories should bridge the gap between the reader’s experience and those on another continent.

Research includes interviews, observation and eyewitness accounts, reading, looking at databases or websites or journals, interviewing experts and more.

Graphic by Marlena Chertock.

There are tools and techniques that the editors and great writers explain and use.

Clark and Scanlan describe the reporter’s tools as: curiosity, observation and empathy and the writer’s techniques as: analogy, metaphor and unforgettable imagery. Writing in this way will convey the human consequences, they said.

The little tricks that Mark Fritz, another great writer listed in this chapter, uses are: writing in your head, jotting a transition, hunting for precision detail, putting away your notes to think about what your story is about and what example you have that most compellingly explains your story.

Top 5 list of terrorism, war and disaster stories:

1. Boy, 13, Shot by Sniper at School, The Washington Post

Serge F. Kovaleski and Michael E. Ruane

In 2002 there was a rash of sniper attacks in Md. and Va. These reporters cover one of the shootings. They certainly conducted a lot of research for the article and provide context for the reader. They visit the issue of the sniper from many sides.

The snipers were found to be John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo.

This Washington Post graphic offers a map of where the shootings took place.

The reporters focus on the injured boy, his hospitalization and surgery. They also give scenes from the school where the shooting took place, providing details of parents and school officials gathering anxiously.

The reporters offer details of a police chief’s eyes becoming moist and his voice quivering with anger, while they give his remarks.

Speaking to reporters in Rockville, his eyes moist and his voice quivering with anger, Montgomery County Police Chief Charles A. Moose said: “Today it went down to the children … Someone is so mean-spirited that they shot a child … Now we’re stepping over the line. Shooting a kid. I guess it’s getting to be really, really personal now.”

The reporters offer context and background of the past sniper shootings to readers. This helps them understand if they have missed the previous reports, informs them that this is an ongoing string of attacks and keeps them up to date.

They also provide details of what the victims were doing when they were shot — ordinary, everyday activities. This raises a level of intensity and danger.

The boy is the youngest of eight sniper victims. The first, a 55-year-old man, was slain Wednesday night in Montgomery. Four people, ages 25 to 54, were killed Thursday morning in Montgomery, a 72-year-old man was fatally shot Thursday night in the District and a 43-year-old woman was wounded in Spotsylvania on Friday afternoon.

All the victims were in public places going about ordinary activities — mowing a lawn, filling a gas tank, walking into a supermarket. But the shooting of a teenager in front of his school jolted parents and school systems across the region and raised an already intensive police investigation to a new level of urgency.

The reporters provide a human element and help readers understand the severity with many quotes from people in various departments.

It’s a horrible tragedy,” Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge said. “You get nauseous thinking about how cowardly, how inhumane this is.”

The reporters try to make sense of the shootings for the readers to be able to understand them better. They quantify and give updates from several, they include that witnesses saw a white van speeding away after one shooting. The reporters give the context from the personal level of the boy who was shot, his family members and then law enforcement.

They express the fear of the community through description and imagery of the schools in the area having lockdowns, Code Blue and Code Red drills and police stationed in the schools.

Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan said at one of numerous news conferences he held yesterday: “The community is in a state of fear, a state of anxiety … It’s a very fearful time.

“People are very nervous and very anxious, but they are going to work,” he added. “As people are very fearful, they’re going about their routines as best they can. Working together, we are going to crack this as soon as we can.”

2. Hurricane Katrina: The Rescuers; ‘First Go for Life,’ Workers Are Told, The New York Times

Ralph Blumenthal

Flood waters rose drastically in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Houses, schools, businesses and streets were flooded. Photo courtesy of

Blumenthal focuses on the rescuing of people after Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans. He gives multiple accounts and descriptions of what the chaotic, dangerous rescuing was like.

He describes in detail the scenes from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. He gives vivid descriptions and explains by showing the reader what he and people he spoke to witnessed.

Natural gas bubbled up from severed lines. Petroleum fires flickered on the water.

Power lines dangled onto roads, and telephone poles teetered, snapped like matchsticks.

Levees breached in several places poured water from Lake Pontchartrain into the city.

These one sentence paragraphs add effect and show the intensity of the situation, much like Jim Dwyer did in the chapter.

Blumenthal includes storytelling quotes in his article, that offer a description and image to the reader.

All the folks that are easy to rescue get rescued right away,” said Dr. Joe Holley, a physician from Memphis who directs medical operations. ”The problem is the guy in the attic. That’s the one we’re looking for with infrared and listening devices.”

This shows the difficulty the rescuers faced in finding people who needed rescuing.

He describes the emergency worker teams who went out to rescue people, the equipment they had, their sleeping conditions (cars, no bathrooms) and their responses.

The teams, 70-member groups of firefighters and medical specialists, arrive with 18-wheelers and other trucks loaded with generators, chainsaws, tents and dogs that can sniff out the living and the dead.

His last phrase “sniff out the living and the dead,” sets the tone of the story. Blumenthal treats this subject matter and issue seriously and with respect, as it should be. He shows empathy in his reporting.

Blumenthal includes quotes from survivors, people being rescued, rescue workers and administrative executives.

‘It’s worse than I thought it was,” said Jim Strickland, the team leader for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Including these quotes helps readers see how different people reacted to the natural disaster and searching and rescuing of survivors.

His lead is extremely powerful. It is a snippet of a conversation among rescue workers.

‘If we come across a body floating?” Sgt. Chris Fisher of the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office asked.

”Let it go,” Maj. Bobby Woods replied, as Sergeant Fisher and other rescue workers prepared for the day’s mission. ”Let’s first go for life.”

By putting this in the beginning, Blumenthal sets the tone of the story, shows readers how serious the disaster is and the philosophy of the workers.

3. About New York; For Old Armenians, Sorrows Arrive With Spring, The New York Times

Michael T. Kaufman

The Armenian genocide occured from 1915 to 1917 and countless Armenians were marched for miles and killed. Photo courtesy of The New York Times.

It’s clear that Kaufman did research for this article. Often times, people are not aware that this genocide even occurred. The Armenian Genocide occurred from 1915 to 1917, where the Armenian population in the Ottoman Empire was greatly decreased.

More than a million Armenians were forced to walk across the Mesopotamian deserts into Syria, Kaufman writes. Many drowned and died of hunger. Many were shot to death. The estimates of the dead range from 600,000 and 1.5 million.

Kaufman helps give the reader context and background with this graf.

Until World War II and the destruction of the Jews, it was the sufferings of the Armenians, well documented by journalists and writers, that set standards of horror and contemporary barbarism.

Kaufman writes with description, vivid details and quotes that connect readers to the situation.

We don’t talk to each other about it because everybody has their own terrible stories,” said Alice Dosdourian, who is 89 years old.

“For four years I was hungry, and beaten,” said Hagop Cividian.

These powerful quotes show the sadness that remains with older Armenians. This shows readers that the tragedy still goes on.

To make the tragedy clearer and set the tone, Kaufman creates a stark contrast in the lead.

The forsythia at the Armenian Home in Flushing are blooming cheerily and the dandelions wink from the lawn, but for the old people who live there, April remains a time of heavy sorrows. They sit silently in sunny rooms, keeping to themselves what they saw and heard and smelled 80 years ago when their people were scattered and killed in the first of the century’s many genocides.

It seems that Kaufman spent much time observing the older Armenians in New York, spending time with them, talking to them, not pushing them because it is a touchy and difficult subject for them to talk about. They don’t even talk about it to each other, as Kaufman said. But in this quote, it’s clear that Kaufman was empathetic while reporting about this. “The old Armenians eagerly took advantage of a stranger’s visit to tell what they had seen and endured as children,” he said.

“But I never forget,” Mrs. Dosdourian said. “I think about what happened all the time. Sometimes I dream about it and I wake up and I hold myself and tell myself, ‘No, you do not have to worry, now you are in America.’ ” Mrs. Dosdourian has been in America since 1924.

Kaufman wanted to make clear to readers how this tragedy that happened long ago still affects the Armenians every day, even if they are away from the place where they suffered.

It seems that Kaufman strongly believes in the moral sense of reporting. He said the older Armenians should testify, should recount their experiences because they are among the last survivors, they need “to have the facts acknowledged.”

He also follows Dwyer’s writing tips by leaving an important quote for the end: “The only time I knew freedom was when I came to America five years ago,” Mr. Cividian said. “Only here I can do what want. I can think, speak and remember.”

4. Last Defense at Troubled Reactors: 50 Japanese Workers, The New York Times

Keith Bradsher and Hiroko Tabuchi

Japanese workers stepped in radioactive water at the Fukushima nuclear plant and were shielded with a tarpaulin on their way to a hospital for treatment. Photo courtesy of The Telegraph.

These reporters give numerous details to help readers see what the dire and dangerous situation is like in Japan after the 9.0 earthquake, tsunami and failing nuclear reactors.

They crawl through labyrinths of equipment in utter darkness pierced only by their flashlights, listening for periodic explosions as hydrogen gas escaping from crippled reactors ignites on contact with air.

They breathe through uncomfortable respirators or carry heavy oxygen tanks on their backs. They wear white, full-body jumpsuits with snug-fitting hoods that provide scant protection from the invisible radiation sleeting through their bodies.

These details set a scene for readers to latch onto and understand.

The reporters highlight the workers who had to stay behind in the nuclear reactor at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant. They describe them almost as heroes, “braving radiation and fire.”

A small crew of technicians, braving radiation and fire, became the only people remaining at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station on Tuesday — and perhaps Japan’s last chance of preventing a broader nuclear catastrophe.

The reporters explain the danger and how this is a natural disaster. They describe the workers having to make “escalating and perhaps existential” sacrifices. This sets the tone for readers and also helps show to gravity of the situation for those involved, the workers, the government and the citizens of Japan.

There was definite research and reporting done for this article. The reporters write that the workplace in Japan is a source of community, that the 50 volunteers are seen as heroes and the last chance to save a greater number of people.

Japanese are raised to believe that individuals sacrifice for the good of the group.

This explanation offers context and an understanding of Japanese culture for readers, adding to their understanding of the story, the disaster and the human response to it.

The reporters also give a well-known example from history to help readers further understand and relate to the disaster. They write about Chernobyl and compare the Japanese nuclear situation as lesser than the Ukrainian disaster, but workers are still exposed to radiation which can cause long-term health effects.

Daiichi is not synonymous with Chernobyl in terms of the severity of contamination. The Ukrainian reactor blew up and spewed huge amounts of radiation for 10 days in 1986. But workers at the plants have a bond.

5. American killed in Uganda was dedicated to service, CNN

Chris Reinolds Kozelle

Nate Henn volunteered with Invisible Children, a nonprofit organization that advocates for child rights for child soldiers in Uganda. Henn was killed in a bombing in Uganda in 2010. Photo courtesy of

Kozelle writes about North Carolina native Nate Henn who dedicated most of his life to service. He was 25 when he was killed last year in a bombing in Uganda.

Kozelle makes a conscious choice to focus on Henn and his service, and not as much on the news aspect of the bombing. This is a human story that focuses on a person. It shows the human impact of a disaster, like Clark and Scanlan say is important to do.

Henn was in Uganda to advocate for the rights of children forced to be child soldiers. He volunteered with Invisible Children.

Invisible Children last year and spent much of his time as an unpaid volunteer, traveling with the group around the United States, said spokesman Jedidiah Jenkins. He became close friends with one of group’s success stories — a 20-year-old Ugandan named Innocent.

Kozelle offers storytelling, powerful and sad quotes in the story. They help the reader understand who Henn was, what happened to him and others and why it is a tragedy. Sometimes it’s stories like this, that offer a human element, that help a reader understand a larger disaster, war or terrorist attack than one that focuses on the attack in general.

Henn had arrived to Uganda last week on his first visit to the country. “Now that he had shown Innocent his country, Innocent was going to show him his,” spokesman for Invisible Children Jedidiah Jenkins said.

It’s clear that Kozelle worked to try to understand why Henn was so dedicated to service and what he believed. He does his research and talks to many people involved, including friends, family and Invisible Children representatives.

Nate loved kids and he just loved people in general,” said Brenda Kibler, a longtime friend of Henn’s who lives in Wilmington, Delaware. “He was always one of the first people to sign up for community outreach like Habitat for Humanity, missions, whatever.”

This quote offers insight into Henn’s life, beliefs and passions. Many of the quotes and descriptions of Henn show how he lived a selfless life.

Kozelle touches on the sadness that Henn worked with the nonprofit for one year before he was killed.