New Zealand earthquake
Image by NZ Defence Force on Flickr. Creative commons licence. Some rights reserved.

When you live in a quiet and idyllic country like New Zealand, major breaking news is something that happens to other people.

You watch tragic stories from other parts of the world, with their images of people's fear and suffering and it is hard to see yourself in those pictures. Bombs, natural disasters, riots and stampedes are usually reserved for places less fortunate than New Zealand.

Statistically though, bad things can happen anywhere and on 22 February 2011, 185 people lost their lives in Christchurch after a magnitude 6.3 earthquake brought the South Island capital to its knees.

It had been preceded by a magnitude 7.1 earthquake on 4 September 2010, but while that quake had been a shock this one would end up being one of New Zealand's worst peacetime disasters.

Newsrooms throughout the country scrambled to tell the story and as the chief editor of the 3 News website (one of New Zealand's major broadcast news shows) I knew the earthquake would be a major part of my life for the foreseeable future.

I first heard about the news on my lunch break – just about to tuck into my kebab I received a frantic call from a colleague in the newsroom telling me that there had been a second earthquake and that this time the damage was much greater and it was likely people had died. I sprinted back to base in my flip flops, nearly getting run over in the process.

Once there I opened an article and started to type: "Christchurch has been struck by a magnitude 6.3 earthquake; initial reports suggest that lives have been lost and that there has been significant damage to the city."
 
My team and I did not stop writing and updating for several hours. We cut video that showed the cathedral plummeting to the ground, people desperately fleeing from crumbling shop fronts, a dazed man with blood pouring down his face, a woman having a panic attack as she was rescued from a crushed building, rocks falling from cliffs onto people's homes and everywhere people crying, looking lost.

At one point I found myself in the work bathroom holding back my own tears – I had never been affected by a news story quite in this way before.

I was lucky; I did not live in Christchurch and was not there for the quake. I am extremely grateful for this, I cannot begin to imagine how terrifying it must have been for some people.

I do, however, have family that live there. Thankfully, they were unharmed – but they did sustain damage to their properties. My wife's elderly grandparents lost the beautiful art deco house they had raised their children in and endured months without proper sanitation until they were able to buy somewhere new.

We shouldn't try to block out the pain others are feeling when we look at a story – knowing how important something is to other people should inspire us as journalists to do the best job possibleJames Murray
When I look back at the work 3news.co.nz did for the Christchurch earthquake though, I am filled with pride. I believe that it was the best work our team, from TV to online, put out in the time I worked there. I believe that being close to the story spurred us on to producing the highest standard of work we had yet achieved in our careers to date.

As journalists we often try to detach ourselves from a story in order to be able to tell it well. This may be because we fear our story may become biased if we allow our feelings to creep in or because it is simply the only way we can look at something so painful and then write something dispassionate and factual. We may believe that telling the story straight is ethically superior to telling it with emotion.

The hardest story I have ever had to work on was the Haiti earthquake. I sat cutting reams of video content sent back from a 3 News reporter and cameraman who travelled to Haiti to cover the story. The streets were lined with too many bodies to count, they were being herded by diggers into piles. Sometimes a body would fall from a digger, grotesquely floppy but surprisingly heavy.

Again I was lucky not to actually be there, but I left work that day feeling sick and depressed. It had been very hard to write a story about this in the usual news style – I wanted desperately to write something more emotive. I felt helpless and ineffectual.

But having now reported on the Christchurch earthquake and knowing a little bit more about what it is like when tragic breaking news hits close to home, I have this to say:

We are better journalists when we empathise. We shouldn't try to block out the pain others are feeling when we look at a story – knowing how important something is to other people should inspire us as journalists to do the best job possible.

It's too easy to be half-arsed when we do not care about what we are writing about. It is impossible to write about what matters if you have no idea what matters to your audience.

People who have been through a terrible earthquake or similar do not deserve shoddy journalism, they deserve accurate information at speed and a story told well. A story like this, when done at its best, can unite a community and give people hope.

When bad news breaks you can only truly produce your best work when you know what is really at stake for the people you are writing for.

James Murray is leading a Journalism.co.uk half-day course in how to deal with breaking news online on Friday 1 February 2013.

Update: Given the events on the US east coast due to Superstorm Sandy, I suppose this article just took on greater relevance.

Millions of people just had their lives re-arranged, and the New York-based journalists covering this story will likely have been affected too. The live coverage of this event has already been excellent, with sites ranging from the Guardian and the New York Times to the Weather Channel providing invaluable information, presented through text, photographs and video in their well-edited live update packages.

As the days wear on though, a breaking news story changes shape, the live coverage wanes and it becomes time to tell the wider story. I know the best of the US journalists working on the east coast will write about this storm's victims with powerful empathy, the only way to tell their story truly is to really understand what has happened to them.

As a caveat, I hope the focus on the storm's effects in the US does not take away from the story in Haiti, where 52 lives have already been lost, food shortages are feared, and cholera and other water-born diseases are thought to be on the increase. Empathy is often inversely proportional to distance, but it may be the Haitians who need it most.


James Murray James Murray worked for four years as the chief editor of 3news.co.nz, the website of one of New Zealand's major broadcast news shows. He currently works as a freelancer for the Associated Press.

Free daily newsletter

If you like our news and feature articles, you can sign up to receive our free daily (Mon-Fri) email newsletter (mobile friendly).

blog comments powered by Disqus