When disaster strikes, an eyewitness becomes critical to telling the story. Nothing can be more dramatic or personal than the minute-by-minute description of someone who’s been in the middle of a catastrophic event. And if eyewitnesses aren’t to be found, often times the media end up quoting the media.
When the collapse of the stage occurred at the Indiana State Fair, and the hourly coverage turned into long repetitive narratives with not very much new information, a new account began to emerge – the journalist as eyewitness.
Some were brief “where I was when it happened” instances; others were long and detailed first-person accounts.
Some reporters who had been attending as concert goers had to kick into high gear as journalists to begin gathering the news.
Later, TV reporters from WTHR began interviewing print photographers from The Indianapolis Star who were near the stage at the time of the collapse. Then came the first person account in narrative form in print when The Star’s concert reviewer Dave Lindquist wrote his version of the event.
The line shifts quickly when a journalist is at the scene of a disaster.
Some of the reporting happens because a trained professional is there who is facilitating the rush of information from the time it breaks.
Other times it occurs because journalists can’t reach eyewitnesses when a scene is secured or a crowd disperses.
And in some instances, it can simply be lazy reporting – when an editor or assignment desk decides that a warm body at the scene is enough to tell the story rather than find other bystanders who’ve been affected.
There is no right answer.
Still, the more a journalist subjects him or herself into the narrative – the more possibilities occur for that journalist to be taken entirely out of his or her role as a professional.
They could be added to a witness list and called to testify to their account in a lawsuit.
They could subjugate or sacrifice their objectivity by showing emotion and concern at a time when they should be playing a role as a neutral fact gatherer.
And they could be emotionally damaged enough to the point of being unable to continue on in their jobs.
The drama of an event that changes lives is also the drama that can change the life of a journalist – forever – both personally and professionally.
This is a lesson I’ve never forgotten after visiting reporters in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing – years later – and seeing how they had been affected after months of coverage including higher rates of divorce, depression and inability to stay focused on the work.
And the times have changed. Now citizens are spreading the news via Twitter, Facebook and also posting their videos and videos with the quick tap of cell phone. They have enhanced the news world as we know it with immediacy, but not always accuracy.
We still like to believe that trained journalists are the most accurate in their fact gathering, even as the news may draw them in to first-person accounts.
Objectivity remains a learned skill. Interviewing is learned skill. Both come with experience. Being prepared for any tragedy, when you’re in it and reporting it, never comes easily.