What to do when you are covering a tsunami (or other foreign disaster)

I’m on an e-mail discussion list of women journalists, where USA Today reporter Elizabeth Weise recently shared notes about what she learned covering the Japanese tsunami.

The closest I ever got as a reporter to covering an international disaster was David Duke’s gubernatorial campaign :-) , but I found this really interesting — useful tips for reporting, yes, but also a  glimpse of what it takes to produce the news coverage that we all rely upon to understand our world.

You can read Beth’s notes on her blog or here, where I’m reprinting with permission:

Things I Learned Covering the Japanese Tsunami

By Elizabeth Weise

The first call you make is to the airlines to book a ticket.

The second is to get a fixer.

(A fixer is someone who knows the local language and culture and helps you do what you need to do – whether it’s tracking down the local funeral parlors, making hotel reservations or finding out where you can get buy a pair of rubber boots. Going in to any country where you don’t speak the language and most people don’t speak English, this is key. Freelance photographers are excellent fixers because 1) they’re fearless 2) they’re adrenaline junkies 3) they’ll go anywhere.

The third is to your credit card companies so you can use your cards outside the US (otherwise they think they’ve been stolen and turn them off).

Use social networks. I sent out notices on Facebook and most of the lists I was on saying I was heading to Japan and asking for contacts.

If you can’t find a fixer, ask for one on every social network and email list I’m on. It’s amazing how things get passed along. I started looking for one before 12 hours before I left the States (basically as soon as I knew I was going) and within three days was getting emails and calls from possible folks, one of whom heard about it from the ex-pat rugby team email list in Tokyo.

Get an international driver’s licence and keep it up to date. I couldn’t drive in Japan because I didn’t have one.

Wear boots.

If it’s not summer, bring long underwear. You’ll be outside in the wind and there’s no inside to go to to warm up.

Write down every phone number anyone gives you in your notebook. Your phone’s charge will run out and you’ll be dead in the water but pen and ink abide.

Bring more business cards than you can imagine you will ever need. Hand them out to everyone. They give you legitimacy and it’s nice to be able to exchange something with someone.

Get people’s email addresses and send them photos you (or your photographer) have taken.

When you go into a large group of people, look around and see who makes eye contact. They want to talk to you. People who don’t look at you don’t want to talk. This can take awhile so don’t leave too quickly.

Sit down as low as you can get to people when you talk to them. Crouching down is good, getting down on your knees even better.

It’s okay to cry. But save sobbing uncontrollably for private moments.

Press credentials (the dog tags you hang around your neck) are vital. The more the better. I saw one guy waving US Open credentials at police officers and getting through roadblocks. One photographer created his own, with a photo and a press association that only he belonged to. They calm officials down.

Talk to other reporters. Ask them what they’ve seen, where they’ve been and what was worth visiting. Give information as freely as you get it.

Go back to places a few days later, to see what’s changed. People you spoke to the first time will be happy to see you and will tell you stories of what’s happened to them since you last spoke.

Don’t take no for an answer. In Japan after the earthquake and tsunami the freeways were closed to anyone but emergency personnel and press. (Which I learned from chatting with a Dutch film crew at the Aomori airport.) You had to go to a local police station to get the press pass. We just kept moving from town to town until we found someone who would give us one.

Photographers are fearless, shockingly courageous and will go anywhere and climb on anything. Follow them. They have become my new reporting heroes.

Corollary: Don’t be lazy. Photographers have to go to where the story is to capture it, they can’t make a phone call or check a wire. It’s a useful reminder for those of us in print.

Have your translator write the following in your notebook the local language, so that when you don’t have him or her around you can still talk to people. They can translate it when you get back together. I could pantomime interviews to an amazing extent, using broken English and Japanese, but without names I couldn’t use them. This way I could.

My name is XXXX. I am a reporter with XXXX.

What is your name?

Could you please write it down for me?

How old are you?

What work do you do?

I’m so sorry that I don’t speak XXXX.

The iPhone is the best invention in the history of mankind. I filed almost my entire body of stories in Japan from my iPhone. The data plan works where cell phones don’t.

A GPS is the greatest invention since the iPhone.

Twitter is your friend. It comes into your iPhone (see above) and tells you what’s going on in the world. In Japan, it was our main source of information on where the radiation was and what was happening in general. (Breaking News is the feed to subscribe to.)

Shoot video if you can. Even if it’s on your iPhone, you can show things you can’t tell (just as you can tell things you can’t show.)

Corollary: Unless you edit a lot of video, iMovie is your friend.  FinalCut Pro is your enemy.

When in doubt, get in your car and drive as far out as you can get, to where the emergency personnel haven’t gotten yet. Stop and talk to people you see on the road.

Expect some flat tires. We had one. One photographer we ran into had two, on the same day.

Sit with people. Silence is okay and it gives them the space to start talking.

Always offer people walking in the direction you’re going a ride. It’s the right thing to do and they might tell you a good story.

You can never have too many Clif bars in your backpack.

Carry a toothbrush and use it multiple times a day – you never want someone to avoid talking to you because you have bad breath (I actually learned this from one of my first editors at AP.)

It’s hard to have too much cash.

Some Sudafed to help you sleep is nice to have (if Sudafed makes you sleepy, that is.) It’s not so much to go to sleep but so that when your editor wakes you up at 3 am and then another 6.1 earthquake wakes you up again at 4 am you can go back to sleep.

There’s something about music that short circuits the defenses. I held it together for days, and then I listened to music on my iPod in the car one day and it just opened the floodgates of emotion. I don’t know why it has that effect but it does. Be warned.

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3 Responses to “What to do when you are covering a tsunami (or other foreign disaster)”

  1. Susan Says:

    Excellent piece! Thanks for posting this. Those of us on the other side of the screen rarely think about what life’s like for the folks who give us content.

  2. Christina Baglivi Tinglof Says:

    This is fabulous. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Janice Dean Says:

    Ditto to the above two. This is wonderful. Have you seen the letter from the soldier on the U.S.S. Mustin that Jim R. posted on his blog two days ago? I commend it to you, if you haven’t, and to any of your readers who enjoyed this post (http://spmcrector.blogspot.com/2011/03/letter-from-uss-mustin-off-northern.html).

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