Lessons from the Storm

We have converged.

Print, visual and broadcast students and faculty at West Virginia University are immersed in gathering stories about some of the people who came to our state after Hurricane Katrina drove them from New Orleans.

At first our effort was informal; some might say unorganized.

Three faculty members and a handful of students began visiting Camp Dawson, a nearby military base where evacuees were living.

Students in Assistant Professor Joel Beeson’s multimedia class gathered audio and photos. Broadcasters videotaped. And print journalists in Assistant Professor Bonnie Stewart’s public affairs reporting class recorded stories with pen and paper.

For a couple of weeks we made contact with as many evacuees and volunteers as possible, trying to identify those who thought they might stay in West Virginia.

Most evacuees were eager to talk – to describe the rising waters and the wretched conditions in the Convention Center or the Superdome. In a way, we were like therapists, listening and taking notes.

Some people would not agree to be on-the-record, but we listened to them anyway. It was part of understanding the bigger story. One man told me he was happy to be at a military camp. If he had gone to Houston, he said, he would have had access to drugs, and he would have used them to cope with the stress.

We learned to respect people’s privacy even though they were in a very public place.

We also learned how to cover stories about people whose lives and experiences are very different than our own.

Because Camp Dawson is a military training camp, the media were allowed only in certain open areas – the grassy strip outside the barracks and a few rooms in the main office buildings. We couldn’t go into the mess hall or the barracks to see how people were living.

So we made contact with evacuees by walking around and talking to anyone who would talk to us.

We were all over the place.

Soon we realized we needed to coordinate our coverage, so we began having weekly “Katrina” meetings.

Two graduate students, Ivy Smith Guiler and Lingbing Hang, and one undergraduate student, Justin Weaver, emerged as leaders.

We assigned print reporters to the multimedia teams from Beeson’s class, which included broadcasters and photographers.

Because the lives of evacuees are constantly changing, our teams have not always been able to work together. If a story is breaking and one student is tied up in class, another must step in. The three student leaders are responsible for making sure stories have multimedia coverage.

A month into the reporting, we still didn’t know what we were going to do with our work.
Should it be a book? A documentary? Both?
Or maybe we could put them on a website.
That, of course, would cost money.

We kept reporting and meeting. KDKA-TV in Pittsburgh aired some of the broadcast students’ work through the station’s partnership with the school.

As the stories and photos began rolling in, our enthusiasm grew, and Dean Maryanne Reed promised us a website.

At that point, we began setting deadlines for stories and video packages. Assistant Professor Dana Coester designed and developed content for our site, and we hired website developer Tim Bleech to implement the site.

For now, here are some of the lessons we’ve learned from the storm.

  1. Organize as soon as what you are doing looks even remotely like a project. Meet weekly with students and have separate weekly faculty/student leader meetings.
  2. Make a contact list with names, phone numbers and e-mails of everyone involved in the project.
  3. Make a contact list of sources.
  4. Talk about reporting. Interviewing evacuees is not like interviewing the “man on the street.” Survivors of a tragedy are stressed out, devastated and often depressed. Reporters, no matter the medium, must respect their subject’s privacy. If they don’t want to talk, give them your card or a scrap of paper with your name and number on it, and walk away.
  5. If they do want to talk, listen. Take good notes. Make sure they realize they are on the record and know what that means. Have them sign consent forms.
  6. Keep reporting even if you don’t know what you are going to do with the stories.
  7. Put together mini-presentations of your work to gain school or outside support.
  8. Involve students in the editing and rewriting process so they maintain ownership of their work.