When tragedy strikes, what do journalists owe sources?

Flood waters in Ellicott City, Maryland. Photo by Max Robinson.

THREE WEEKS AGO, a devastating flood swept through sleepy Ellicott City, Maryland, shaking up the lives of residents and business owners and pouring them out for the world to see. Trapped in the flood, my instinctive response—as a part-time journalist and full-time millennial scum—was to document the scene. I took video of the waist-deep water magically held at bay by a thin apartment building door, and photographed the cars unlucky enough to be caught in the pull of the world’s largest draining bathtub.

I was holed up in a stranger’s empty apartment, looking at the river that used to be my street, when I was contacted by a production associate at “Good Morning America” via Twitter. With the determination of a fixer trying to get me on the last helicopter out of Saigon, he wrote that a woman named Christina would call me on Skype for a video interview. I’d agreed to talk, but as the lights flickered and then died in the apartment, I replied that I needed to conserve my prehistoric iPhone’s battery. The producer reassured me that two minutes is all they would need—a sort of apologetic, conversational sherpa-ing that I’ve done before, to lead a reluctant subject to an interview.

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Requests from local news affiliates had come almost immediately after I posted my footage online. Many asked permission to use my photos and video footage, and for the most part I agreed. The Twitter account I primarily use to goof around with friends or maybe share a Vulture article I’d written began showing up in news articles from NBC and CNN to AccuWeather and The New York Times.

When Fox News asked on Twitter, I half-mindedly replied, “No, fuck off,” a response which, for me, went viral.

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Naturally, Fox ended up using my video anyway, as part of a compilation I explicitly did not agree to. When pressed by the photography blog PetaPixel, a Fox News spokesman defended the decision and explained that they had licensed my footage from the Associated Press. Fox News eventually deleted tweets showing both the video and their initial request to me. I took note a week later when Fox uploaded a segment entitled “Why climate change has run its course” to its official YouTube channel, and felt steadier in my response.

In the days that followed the flood, I answered phone calls or Facebook messages from reporters and media-types, asking me to recount what happened and politely requesting that I distill fuzzy memories and unsure feelings down to a handy quote. I tried to answer as many as possible. At a certain point, however, you hit a wall. The background radiation that stays with you after a traumatic event sticks around for hours, days, weeks. It’s a struggle to answer questions like “What were you thinking at that time?” and “How high would you say the water got?”—to say nothing of offering whatever deep thoughts on the economic and political fate of your town.

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As the mental fog lifts and I start to divide portions of my life into “pre-flood” and “post-flood”—as I start thinking about things other than where my car is, or where I am going to live for the next few months—I find myself troubled by my position in media coverage of the floods. I know that the folks riding news desks and navigating the latest national tragedy all have bosses to satisfy and bills to pay. But there doesn’t appear to be a guidebook for potential sources confronted with a sudden swell of media requests. Nor do all reporters work with the same understanding of best practices when engaging with a source in crisis, be it from a natural disaster, a shooting, or  another horrific event.

 

Despite our best efforts as journalists, we report on the messy details of people’s lives as outsiders looking in. We typically don’t consider that getting such details wrong could have massive ramifications for a story’s subject or their family.

 

LESS THAN A YEAR AGO, I was a beat reporter for ALM, a legal-news outlet based in Manhattan. I pressed attorneys for details on car accident cases and medical malpractice settlements. I left repeated voicemails and sweet-talked receptionists Yojimbo-style, pitting lawyer against lawyer for the important facts at hand. I used to joke that I was an “ambulance-chaser chaser.” I bugged working professionals who usually lacked an emotional stake in some of the worst days of people’s lives; still, the machine I was a part of could be ghoulish.

In college, I worked at the now-insolvent Baltimore City Paper, first as an intern and later as an editorial assistant and freelance writer. As an intern, I helped clean up “Murder Ink”—a weekly accounting of every homicide in Baltimore City and a response to a problem without an easy solution. Major details of city killings were elusive and often went completely underreported, says Anna Ditkoff, my former boss and the project’s creator. I checked facts and edited parts of the column, which felt like important and vital work. I also recall making a fumbling and awkward phone call to the relative of a murder victim while trying to fact-check a few elusive details.

Ditkoff says she did not usually speak to the relatives of murder victims directly, but the times she did were often critical learning experiences that shaped subsequent coverage. “When we first started, we included arrest histories,” she says. “A family member of a victim reached out to me at our office to explain why that was biased and inaccurate. It could make someone look like a criminal when they were actually the victim of police bias.” This anecdote is important: Despite our best efforts as journalists, we report on the messy details of people’s lives as outsiders looking in. We typically don’t consider that getting such details wrong could have massive ramifications for a story’s subject or their family.

Just as Ditkoff’s interactions with sources refined her approach over time, I know that my experiences as a reporter invested me in the concepts I covered, from criminal justice reform to legal advocacy. Speaking about my experiences with the flood has had the same effect; I’m certainly better prepared to champion policy that recognizes the very real threats posed by climate change. My experience as a source, however, leaves me with doubts as to whether reporters give sufficient deference to those close to trauma.

 

I’m looking at all these places I’ve frequented the last three years and there’s TV reporters talking about how it’ll take years to rebuild, like it’s this far away bombed out city. They were talking about the future, but I knew by the time that future came they’d be long gone.

 

IN A COFFEE SHOP roughly two miles from the mud-covered ruin of Ellicott City’s Main Street, I spoke with local reporter Libby Solomon, a reporter for the Baltimore Sun Media Group and a resident of Ellicott City since 2015. “I had no intention of reporting on it,” says Solomon, “but I looked out my kitchen window, and there’s a flood.”

Solomon currently writes for the Towson Times; Ellicott City isn’t even her beat these days. But she lived in the city during the last flood in 2016, and recalls feeling “so completely helpless.” When the flood waters once again rolled in, she knew she had to take action as a reporter. “Being literally above [the scene] and knowing I personally was safe, telling people what was going on, was one thing I could do,” she says. Earlier this month, as she walked down Main Street with a host of other reporters, Solomon grappled with the surreality of the situation.

“I’m looking at all these places I’ve frequented the last three years and there’s TV reporters talking about how it’ll take years to rebuild, like it’s this far away bombed out city,” she says. “It was weird because they were talking about the future, but I knew by the time that future came they’d be long gone.”

There are people for whom such incidents amount to more than articles, something to be filed and then moved on from. At critical moments, those needs collide with the need for reporters, who are also susceptible to trauma, to cover a crisis without turning away. When we lie to ourselves about “objectivity,” we overlook that truly great journalism is so often grounded in justice—whether legal, ethical, or karmic. We also risk disregarding the humanity of those people caught in harm’s way.

When I see or talk to my neighbors, the anxiety and grief hanging in the air is palpable—something Environmental Health News recently covered. It’s as if my entire town has collectively staggered away from a bad car accident, and local news crews are on the scene to grill us on the color of the car that hit us. Reverend Anjel Scarborough, the tough-as-nails pastor heading up the disaster recovery efforts at the local Episcopalian church, posted a public list of media protocols directed at reporters—“in order to balance the mental and spiritual health needs of our community in the aftermath of this flood.”

The church’s impromptu press release is impressively articulate and almost saintly in its patient wording. It assures members of the press covering the flood that they are doing important work—“this will be a long term effort and we don’t want the community to forget us”—while asking them in so many words to cool it. It’s an inarguably clear request from a city’s residents to help soothe pain, and a plea for journalists not to strip-mine and sell it.

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Max Robinson is a social media coordinator and freelance film critic and journalist. His work has appeared in the Baltimore Beat, Vulture, CityLab, and Baltimore City Paper.