I first got wind of the story — and in journalism the thing that kills or wounds or impoverishes another human being is always “the story,” because that is part of the emotional filtering we must do to write about it — from my spouse. It was about 1PM on a Sunday, and she’d just come back from her sister’s house after dropping off a hand-me-down piece of furniture. Her sister had told her about the avalanche. The three men killed were among the closest friends she and her husband had.
That weekend I was the designated on-call reporter for the small newspaper where I work. The next day or so was probably the closest I’ve come to writing about an event in real Internet time, feeding the need-it-now online audience as well as the daily print consumers. I learned a few things from it. This post deals with those lessons.
1. You don’t always need to be there.
I was at home here, with spouse and kids, about thirty-five miles from (and 4,600 vertical feet below) the avalanche site. I’d worked an office shift the day before and wasn’t scheduled to go in on Sunday. The initial instinct, always, is to leap into the nearest car and be at the scene of any newsworthy happening, but that turned out not to be necessary, or even wise, in this case.
That reportorial instinct to be on the scene, in recent years, has been supplanted by the instinct to check Twitter. I’m finding more and more benefit in being close to a wifi connection rather than an EMT staging area these days. You go there if you need pictures and video. You go there, in other words, if you are TV.
Major incident scenes, unless you are very fast or have a helicopter, are among the worst places to gather information. You have no sense of scale, authorities are trying to stanch the flow of detail, and you’re often out of cellphone and data range. What’s more, your most accessible on-site sources often aren’t totally clued in — the police flack you’re talking to on the shoulder of the highway has no way to see through the eyes of the rescuers digging through snow and debris eight hundred feet higher.
The early going was a slog, whether you were there or not. The avalanche was at Tunnel Creek, on the wildland backside of the Stevens Pass summit. The site should have been familiar, since it had killed a snowboarder in a similar avalanche one year before (pdf). But because “Stevens Pass” is also the name of the commercial ski area operated at the apex of U.S. Highway 2, Seattle media were flocking to the lodge there for details. (All were directed to the Pass manager John Gifford, who kept mum on the skiers’ identities for the first day or so. The reporters were asking the right guy, though: Gifford knew well who they were, and one of them was his own management-level employee.) The ski area had no culpability in the skiers’ deaths; they had taken the Stevens Pass chairlift to the peak and then crossed into the backcountry at their own risk.
Sheriff’s deputies in charge of the investigation passed on poor information about victims’ equipment and dates of birth, and the identities that were publicly known became conflated. The worst example may be here, posted (and likely aired) more than ten hours after the avalanche: It gets the ages wrong and conflates survivor Elyse Saugstad with fellow skier and ESPN journalist Megan Michelson.
2. Journalism feeds its own.
Of the dozen people who witnessed the avalanche, at least three were journalists with strong online credentials. They were, specifically, ski-lifestyle reporters, and their audience is tech-savvy and web-adept. (Top-tier ski enthusiasts tend to be highly mobile, in both the geographical and wireless meanings of the word.) One of the first verified accounts of the deaths came from Powder Magazine, whose senior editor John Stifter was an eyewitness. Thus, the narrative of events would cohere early, with experienced observers giving the account. Much of what I had to do that first day, aside from making calls to the responding agencies, was drink in their feeds.
For one thing, the ski journalists were deeply familiar with the skiers who’d been lost, and knew the victims had much wider fame in the mountain sports community. Their service to their audience merited early identification, rather than waiting for the King County Medical Examiner to formally issue the dead men’s names. Powder at first demurred from identification, but later the same day chose to ID those killed.
Stifter became the chief voice of my second-day story about the incident. “I’ve been in your position many times,” he told me by phone. It was generous of him.
I’d known the names of at least one of the victims by 2:30PM, sitting in my home office, without officially “knowing” it. Others I was able to tease out from Facebook friendships and my own recollections. My town is small; I’d camped out at a blues festival with one of the men years earlier, and another drank beer at my house as a guest of mutual friends one Fourth of July. I knew them, but over the long Presidents Day weekend the chances of getting a sheriff’s sergeant or junior coroner to give me official verification were quite slim. After both Powder and ESPN.com identified the dead, with Michelson as chief testimony, I chose to do the same.
3. The web corrects
In my first phone conversations with sheriff’s deputies, they misidentified the gear surviving skier Saugstad used to buoy herself above the crush of the snowslide. I was told she inflated an Avalung, essentially a portable air supply for anyone about to be buried in snow. But the Avalung doesn’t work that way, and in her first blogged statement about the disaster, Saugstad gave credit where it was due, to her ABS airbag gear.
A reader of the newspaper’s website, where this was top news for 48 hours running, noted the discrepancy and offered help:
Ideally, of course, you want to avoid the need for this type of input and get it right the first time.
4. The chance to aggregate
The original February 19 article was updated probably eight to eleven times as my knowledge of the situation evolved. The changes were usually noted by adding external links to show where I’d gotten the new info. Still, that’s too much shifting when all you’re doing is adding a paragraph or two of detail. Next time, I’ll Storify.
By developing a Storify project and dropping a link to it into my main coverage, I could have a) kept the readers informed in something close to real time, and b) kept far better track of all the online sources from which I was culling information. By the end of Day One my browser history was encyclopedic in length: When I wanted to refer back to a certain feed I’d visited, it was an agonizing crawl back up my own timeline. There are easier ways, getting easier all the time.
5. Be human
Dispassionate reporting isn’t really an option, even under the best of circumstances. As mentioned above, there’s a filter you can drop over your vision, something like the kind of tactical thinking that people in war use to override their emotions at the act of killing, but that’s a temporary fix. When the story happens next door, and involves people you’ve known, the challenge is greater. Applying compassion when reporting on dire events, I’ve found, may be a slower road to getting information — but the information when it’s granted is fuller, richer, more heartfelt and better expressed.
The mistake I made in approaching the loved ones of the avalanche victims was a simple one: My first inquiry was, “Are you willing to talk to me?” instead of something like, “Please tell me about your husband.” The former approach gives the bereaved person room to view your questioning as one more unnecessary burden in a day already marred by loss and heartache. The latter makes them the curator of their lost partner’s memory, and perhaps awakens in them a wish to do honor to the departed. This harvests detail for the journalist, and at the very least does no harm to the person being interviewed. In the long run, it may even help.
I was there to tell the stories of the lost, but those left behind can’t help but tell their own stories in the process. I should have remembered that.
About the main image: Photographer Chris Ohta documented a twilight memorial ski run held in memory of Johnny Brenan, Jim Jack and Chris Rudolph, victims of the February 19 avalanche. Sales of this print benefit their loved ones. Ordering details can be found here. Note the three stars hovering in the upper left. I like that a lot.