Human first, reporter second
A short guide to covering the human stories of a natural disaster and staying sane along the way
I first met Becky Phillips at a train depot.
I had heard rumors of her story all day. People all over White Sulphur Springs had been talking about it, but in those first couple of days, her story wasn’t all that special. Becky’s 14-year-old daughter Mykala went missing during the floods. There were others missing, and from the same town, too. I didn’t realize at the time how big her story would become. I didn’t realize that people from Alaska would email me, asking if they could donate money to the family. I didn’t realize I’d get voicemails from people who had survived the flood of 1985 and wanted to thank me for telling Becky’s story.
At the time, I just had to find the train depot.
I’m not from White Sulphur Springs, and I had never been to The Greenbrier before that day. I found her through Facebook. After a quick introduction — Hi, I’m a reporter from the Charleston Gazette-Mail — we decided to meet up. I was really lucky to be one of the first reporters to have a sit down interview with her.
How can I describe her story? Heartbreaking. That’s the only word there is. The family tied themselves together with extension cords, hoping that would keep them together. Here’s what happened:
A sudden wave of water came hurtling down Howard Creek, something that looked like it came out of a movie. They watched as it crashed into their house, knocking the home off its foundation and sending it skidding down the road. They had no choice but to climb out the living room window and into the water.
Just as they were in the water, rushing down Mill Hill Drive, one of the extension cords snapped.
“The knot didn’t come out, because my son ties military knots,” Becky said. “That didn’t come undone. The actual extension cord broke. They went one way and she went the other.”
The family watched as Mykala rushed away from them, screaming for someone to help her. They saw her body go under the water as the current dragged her underneath the porch of a house down the street.
Like I said, heartbreaking. (Keep reading here if you like.)
I want to resist congratulating myself for writing that story. I think in many ways it could have been a lot stronger. But with the time frame I had, with the resources I had, that was the best I could do. I couldn’t have written that story, and the handful more that followed, if I walked into that train depot acting like a reporter.
I sat there waiting for a while. If you’ve ever been down that way, you know how beautiful the train depot is. Especially when it’s that time of the day where the sun starts to melt the sky away into heaps of bright-colored neapolitan ice cream. The day was been hot. Oppressive. I sprayed myself down with bug spray that morning, but I had sweat most of it off and it was starting to make my eyes burn. My feet hurt. I didn’t have boots, just tennis shoes without any socks.
I sat there for about 25 minutes, waiting for Becky to show up. She was over in The Greenbrier were she works as a maid. The resort opened its doors to some people who had lost their homes int he flood, and shuttle was supposed to bring her to the depot to meet me.
I’m not sure what kind of person I expected to walk off of that shuttle. Maybe it was because I had grown accustomed to seeing victims of the flood shown on T.V. news as flat characters in a poorly written drama, but I was struck how different she was from any person I had met before.
“You don’t mind if I smoke, do you?” she asked me, already lighting her cigarette up.
“Of course not.”
I have never covered a disaster like this before. If you would have asked me what kind of reporting I like to do before June 23, I would’ve rattled on about the nuances of higher education and whether or not the state’s system of higher education is meeting the needs of its workforce.
I had to get a crash course in covering a disaster, and covering it as a human first and a reporter second. Here’s what I learned.
Don’t dump them after your deadline
After I wrote that first story, I stayed in contact with Becky. We messaged on Facebook almost every day, sometimes she would message me just to say she hadn’t heard any news. Sometimes I would let her know that I was thinking of her. The messages were usually short, but they mattered.
Because we kept in daily contact, it didn’t feel out of place when I wanted to do a followup on the Phillips family. It didn’t seem weird that I wanted to go to church with them the morning before Mykala’s celebration of life (the family adamantly did not want people to call it a funeral).
If you just use people for a story, they notice. If you ask questions you already know the answer to, they notice.
Asking someone how they feel is fine, but that shouldn’t be your only question. Of course they feel bad, they’ve lost someone they love, they’re hurting. Ask specifics. Are you getting enough sleep? What have you done today before we met? Have you been able to concentrate at work? And, in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, do you have food and water?
Don’t drive up and down their street waiting for them to come out of their house
That’s creepy. Do I really need to actually make this point? Apparently I do, because reporters repeatedly would drive down Becky’s street multiple times a day, trying to get an interview with her.
You can be persistent, but respect their privacy.
Watch for the times they think they’re alone
It’s hard to come across a “good” victim. Even the best speakers in the world get flustered when disaster strikes. Just like Becky. She’s strong. She doesn’t want people to think she’s weak because she genuinely isn’t. With the other people I talked to during the flood, I could see their emotions boiling just below the surface. All I had to do was prod a little bit and BAM, it would all come spilling out. Not with Becky.
When she talked to me, the conversation often bounces around. She’s watching out for her family, making sure the dog has water in its bowl, making sure the smoke doesn’t bother me.
When she isn’t talking to me, her body language says a lot. Here’s what I saw during the celebration of Mykala’s life:
“It’s hard to put in our minds that this is the time for celebration,” Gilliam said. “It’s hard to understand that we should be happy. But if you could look into the world where Mykala is right now, I promise you she’s up there smiling down on us. She’d want us to be happy.”
When people aren’t looking, Becky fishes out a crumpled white tissue from her pocket, brings it up to her reddened face and slides it along her eyes to wipe away her tears before they can roll further down.
‘Let your poor heart break a little’
Okay I get it, most people don’t look to of Bette Midler for the inspiration to be a better journalist. And maybe I don’t either. Maybe.
I do think this song, “The Glory of Love,” is great, though. Bette definitely didn’t write this song, a guy named Billy Hill did, but her version is my favorite. I listened to this song a lot during the month following the flood. It’s got some good advice. It reminds me that, during my interviews, the only people in the world are me and my source. It’s just us. In that short amount of time, I’ve got to establish a relationship with the person in front of me. A good relationship is a give and take, and sometimes that means you get hurt.
And, it’s darn catchy.
If you don’t let your emotions out, they’ll just boil up inside you later on. Stay professional during your reporting, and certainly don’t add to the stress your source has. But if you need to step away for a few minutes, get a breath of fresh air and have a bottle of water, do it. You can’t do your work unless you’re at your best.
I’m still learning how to cover this sort of stuff. I don’t think you ever get “good” at covering a disaster. Her
Don’t be a jerk. Be patient. Listen more than you speak. Ask the kind of questions you’d want to be asked. Bring snacks. Wear socks. Let yourself cry on the car ride home.
Thanks for reading! I’m going to start writing more about my work from behind the scenes. If you want, follow me on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. And, don’t forget to follow my friends over at the Charleston Gazette-Mail.
Here’s the stories I’ve written about the Phillips family so far, starting from the beginning…