What I Found In Moore, Oklahoma

When Alex Hannaford found a couple in Moore willing to talk about how they had survived the deadly tornado, a police officer intervened. 

Shortly after the deadly tornado struck the town of Moore just south of Oklahoma City on May 20, I was transfixed by the live Internet stream of KFOR, the local NBC affiliate. KFOR's coverage had been unimpeachable. I even Tweeted: “phenomenal, focused reporting. A mix of aerial shots, public info warnings, no speculation – just facts. Tragic but v. impressive.”

I'm a longform journalist ordinarily, but this wasn't just a local story. Moore is a five-and-a-half-hour drive from my home in Austin, Texas, and by 8 p.m. I was in the car on my way to cover it for the Telegraph in London and NBC.com, about to join the army of reporters descending on Moore from all over the U.S.

I reached a town outside of Moore about 3:30 a.m., and grabbed a couple of hours of sleep before heading toward the center of the devastation. Avoiding the interstate, I found my way via back roads, past fields and subdivisions, and soon happened upon abandoned cars. Muddy tire marks trailed from the backs of vehicles on a grassy bank, telling their own tale of desperation and fear that this storm had wrought: stalled in traffic, people had literally abandoned their cars, and run.

Although it was 15 hours after the tornado struck, the police and National Guard were still blocking off roads that had suffered the most destruction. There were at least two designated media areas where satellite trucks were cordoned off by police officers attempting to corral reporters.

A photographer friend and I set off on foot and managed to find a residential street that hadn't yet been blocked, eventually arriving at what was clearly the worst-hit area of the Kings Manor subdivision. Many properties had been so utterly destroyed there was little evidence that houses had ever stood on those slabs of concrete.

That's when we found Kristina Daniel and her husband Donovan, sifting through what was left of their home. I asked if I could talk to them, and through a mixture of tears and laughter Kristina told me their story: they'd lived in the house for a year-and-a-half; that their daughter—who was, thankfully, at her Kristina’s mother’s house when the storm hit—would turn a year old next month; that their two dogs survived only because they were in their crates which miraculously endured the concrete and debris falling around them.

Behind me, a police car pulled up, and an officer approached. He was polite but wanted to know who I was and where I was from. He told me to leave – to return to the media area outside Dick's Sporting Goods store, a couple of blocks from the Plaza Towers elementary school where seven children had died. But the parking lot outside Dick's was hemmed in by police and the National Guard. Journalists there were restricted to interviewing first responders – crucial, but only part of a growing story. I asked if I could have five more minutes with Kristina and Donovan, as they had agreed to speak to me. “If you don't leave now,” he said, “I'll arrest you. These people have lost everything and they don't want to speak to you.”

That’s the challenge, in a nutshell: the perception by authorities that journalists should cover the story from press conferences or sources within the police. The presumptive justification is that no one who had suffered through a natural disaster would want to talk to a reporter. But the reality is more complex. At a New America Foundation event on covering tragedy last month, Charles Homans, executive editor of The Atavist, said these editorial opportunities are "fraught with ethical complexities," intensifying the moral challenges that we as journalists face.

I had a job to do. These people had lost everything but their stories of survival, courage and resilience in the aftermath of tragedy was incredibly compelling. I understood too that the first responders were beat. They lived here as well—they had friends and family who were deeply affected by the same tragedy, and obviously they didn't understand the job that journalists are tasked with. Why should they?

So what do you do in that situation? You find another way in and hope you don't bump into the same police officer. You continue to try to tell the story.

I was in Moore for two days. Even though my job—contributing in some small way to this first draft of history—was done, I was glad to be leaving. People get media fatigue. They need time to heal. I avoided arrest—twice—but I'd managed to speak to more people who wanted to tell their story. I've decided to return in a couple of months to work on a longer, more in-depth narrative. The benefit of time allows the dust to settle; for a story to gain context and for me to get more perspective.

In two days I'd witnessed some fairly questionable behavior by some segmets of the media in Moore: tabloid reporters sent solely to have their pictures taken amid the rubble to show their readers they were there; a news crew interviewing children who had lost a teacher, repeatedly asking “How did you feel?” in an attempt, presumably, to elicit tears. It left in bad taste, and I wondered whether this kind of “reporting” can impact those trying to tell the same story both ethically and sensitively. Was it any wonder I got the feeling we'd outstayed our welcome?

Russell Lewis, NPR's Southern U.S. bureau chief (and a 2010 Dart fellow) helped coordinate his network's coverage of the Moore tragedy, and I wanted to get his thoughts. NPR had a couple of reporters on the ground several hours after the tornado hit. The next day they had four reporters and three producers – in addition to coverage filtering in from three local affiliates. “It's not easy to look someone in eye who has just lost their home and tell their story,” Lewis told me. “And it's always tough working out how long to stay in a disaster scene.” Lewis said that reporting the news needed to be balanced with navigating the challenge of meeting people who have endured a tragedy and are being asked the same questions over and over again. The task of a good news organization, Lewis said, is not to ask the same questions “but to find your own nuanced stories.”

Despite the feeling in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy that you should get in quickly, tell the story and get out, we need to continue to report stories as long as there are stories to tell. If the same people who have just lost everything are being made to feel like they're on some kind of media assembly line --made to re-live their experience over and over for different news networks or newspapers -- it doesn't necessarily mean you should leave town. It's probably just time to find a different angle, and hope that we won't all be tarnished with the same brush as those acting less than honorably.