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by Katherine Lee
Photo by Michael E. Palmer
Covering a disaster for the first time is a rude awakening.
I learned just how rude when a tornado hit my city of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, Dec. 16, 2000, killing 11 people and leaving hundreds homeless. It was my first - so far, my only - occasion covering a disaster, and I was ill-prepared for the emotional states the newspaper's staff went through as the tornado and its aftermath unfolded. This isn't one of the topics you usually cover in journalism school: treating victims with respect and sensitivity, while at the same time getting the information you need.
Like so many others in Tuscaloosa, a town of about 80,000, I watched live shots of the tornado touching down on television, courtesy of a camera positioned on a weather tower nearby. My first reaction was excitement. I'd never even seen a tornado up close before, and this was exactly the situation a journalist hopes and prepares for: a dramatic news event and an opportunity to cover it.
As the assistant city editor at the local newspaper, The Tuscaloosa News, my job that Saturday was to coordinate our coverage. I sent reporters and photographers to the disaster area, fielded phone calls and generally led the newsroom. I also went out as a reporter the next day, touring some of the areas of widest destruction, attending Sunday service at a church in the disaster area and finding an unidentified Good Samaritan who had been captured in a Tuscaloosa News photograph the day before, carrying an injured little girl away from the rubble that had once been her home - and, as we discovered later, the bodies of her dead father and 16-month-old baby brother.Staff photographer Michael Palmer was one of the first people on the scene. He had followed an ambulance into the worst hit areas minutes after the tornado hit, before most of the emergency vehicles had time to gather and set up roadblocks.
Palmer said the sight of bodies and sheer devastation tempered his ability to shoot. He had to fight his initial urge to leave before he was able to talk himself into doing what he came to do.
"I felt like I was intruding," he said. "It's a weird thing to walk up to somebody who's injured and take photographs."
Palmer, camera to his face, approached one injured man. The man was bleeding from a wound to his head, and Palmer initially thought only of capturing that image.
"I just flew in without thinking, and that's exactly what I did, just approached him," he said. The man, seeing Palmer, cursed him.
"I felt stung. That really hurt a little bit. I don't know if it brought me to my senses or knocked the wind out of me, but it made me a little more cautious about the way I approached people," Palmer said. "Instead of just walking up with a camera to my face, I approached them as a human being first."
From that point, he tried to photograph the scenes of devastation with a mind towards maintaining his subjects' dignity.
"I just tried to put people in the landscape, place them among the devastation, not put them under a microscope. I tried to be respectful with the way I framed it, I didn't want to focus in or get too close to an injury or someone's face. I was conscious of the way I framed the whole thing."
And Palmer also felt called upon to lend a hand as well, helping others sift through rubble, looking for survivors. One might argue that a photographer's job is to document the event, not to play a part in it, but Palmer said the situation called for a different approach.
"I don't know if anybody who could have gone in there and not helped," he said. "That's what your instinct tells you to do: help. It's not conscious; it's something you do.
"The camera stands between you and everyone else, but, right then, it was good to put it down and lend a hand. It's just what was called for."
The events that happened the day of the tornado and in the days that followed brought to the forefront the need for journalists to be sensitive in these situations. Being an editor makes it easy to lose sight of that, simply because you're in the newsroom all day and usually don't go into the field. But even reporters can lose sight of that, if they get too used to the mindset of "get the story no matter what."
When the grandfather of the girl in the photograph called the News the day after the tornado to ask me to tell their story, it impressed upon me the importance of sensitivity in our coverage. The grandfather's son and baby grandson were dead, but in the midst of his grief, he wanted to reach out to the community.
Until that moment, I had thought of our tornado coverage as just several days of great news stories. It hadn't hit me with full force that these stories represented people who would never see their loved ones again, people who had lost everything they owned, people who might never recover.
That recognition affected how I approached my story, and it woke me up to the realization that these people were not only part of my story but my readers as well. Cover enough deaths, see enough destruction, and you can easily lose sight of the humanity in the rush to get the story or photograph.
And it affected me. Some journalists might call it unprofessional, but after I talked with the family, I went back to my car and cried for their loss because, like Palmer, I couldn't sit back and do nothing. Since I wasn't in a position to offer them any material help, I did the only thing I could. I grieved for them. As a reporter, you become used to dealing with serious or tragic subjects with a degree of detachment, but I believe approaching this particular subject with some compassion made it a better story. The family was more forthcoming, and they learned, for a moment, to trust a stranger to tell their story.
I learned that being a journalist not only brings you face to face with the people and events you write about, it forces you to confront the way you approach it. Is your approach likely to elicit a good response? Are you being sensitive? Are you being respectful? Where is the line between intruding on someone's grief or privacy, and the public's right to know? And does one always justify the other?
That unpleasant aspect of the job was evident in the days after the tornado. One local television news crew showed up unbidden at the school of the 6-year-old girl in Palmer's photograph on her third day back in school, camera and microphone in tow, without talking to (or securing permission from) the girl's guardian or her teacher. As a result, the girl's grandfather, who had been considering allowing her to talk to the press, became nervous about the sudden notoriety and elected not to put her or any other member of his family in front of the cameras at all.
That's when I realized that handling a sensitive story with a degree of compassion has far-reaching consequences. We are all tarred by the excesses of our more careless colleagues. If victims of violent crimes or disasters feel they need protection not only from criminals but from journalists, they may seek to limit reporters' access entirely. Before we go out to do the interview or shoot that photo, we should ask ourselves the purpose. Is it essential to the story, or are we doing it merely for the sensational value? When victims start to feel they need protection from us, it's we who end up becoming the enemy.
The television crew's disregard for the girl's feelings made me reassess my own motivations for wanting that interview. The girl's grandfather had spoken with me already. I had already written one story on his family's tragedy. He had been eager for me to tell their story, but in light of the TV crew's tactics, he was afraid of us all. Suddenly I felt guilty myself for wanting to talk to her, even though I had tried to be sensitive to the family in my request.
As journalists, we often don't ask ourselves whose fault it is that victims are afraid to talk to us. So it's easy to think the public just doesn't understand our job, and we become ever more intrusive in our tactics in getting the story. If people don't understand why we're knocking at their door, then why do we do it, if not to make our work relevant to readers? If people are reluctant to talk to us, then how do we tell their story?
Keeping that sense of compassion for the victim may sound like a euphemism for being less aggressive or slacking off on a breaking story, but I see it as a way of remembering whom you write for. As journalists, we become so inured to the sight of trauma that we forget just how devastating it is. For others, it's a mother who will never come home, or a child who has to face the newspaper headlines and his classmates the next day. For us, it's all in a day's work.
Sometimes, it's a good idea to give the subject a little control. If they're not ready to talk, does it really do irreparable harm to give them that little bit of room? If nothing else, consider it insurance for the future. They may remember, a month or a year from now when you're trying to write that follow-up story, that you were the one reporter who left them alone to grieve when they asked you to.
Palmer learned that lesson the day of the tornado.
"You have to understand the mind of a photographer," he said. "They see the possibility of an image and they go for it. Sometimes that image lies across some boundaries that are risky to cross. They should be safely crossed. We're here to document and record and show the world what's going on. If we just piss on people when we do that, they're going to stop letting us cross. We have to ask permission.
"Some days, I don't even have to put the camera up to my face. I know they don't want to be photographed. We have to stop at the door and at least try to find out what's going on."
He took photos of one family only after telling them his name and talking with them.
"I knew if I wanted to be there, I needed permission," Palmer said. "I just wanted to get pictures of human beings, not make it look like an ambush, like that first experience. They were comfortable, they knew my name. It was just a more humane way of doing it, approaching them and the situation they were in. I mean, they were standing there on the rubble of the home they once lived in. You just can't walk up and start snapping pictures."
It's never a bad idea to remind oneself who we work for, that every story has human beings behind it. In the course of my talk with the grandparents of the child everyone called "the tornado girl," the grandmother gave me a photograph of the girl, her younger sister and her baby brother, now dead. His body had not been recovered until the next morning after a heartbreaking overnight search in near-freezing temperatures. Through tears, she told me to use it to illustrate my story, and I could see how wrenching it was for her to talk about her grandchildren, one of whom was dead and two who might yet die. When I offered to bring it back the next day, she told me to keep it.
So I did. It now sits on my computer at work, a daily reminder that these are the people for whom we work.