From the archive: Reporting on 2011’s Tsunami Disaster

I don’t remember waking up to my phone ringing.

I just remember staring at it, wondering why it was going off at 5 o’clock in the morning. Then, in a daze, it clicked in that I should answer it, so I did.

“There’s been an earthquake. Get to the office now.”

I quickly started pulling myself together. I read the newsfeeds off my laptop as I was brushing my teeth. 8.9 magnitude. Tsunami. Giant waves. Entire islands submerged. Death. Destruction. Drama.

Showtime.

It’s difficult for anyone who isn’t in the news industry to understand the rush of a big story. It’s not that we’re happy disaster has struck, it’s just that this is when we know we’re needed most. As much as people say they hate the media reporting on death-destruction-drama, people are nosy by nature. They crave knowledge. And we’re just the fearless bastards who want to get that for you.

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I got into the office just after 6 a.m., and I wasn’t even the first one there. Immediately I started calling people that I knew would have gotten similar wake-up-calls with the news. One of my first calls was to Matt with Global Medic. These guys have inflatable hospitals and water purifiers by the truck-full, just waiting to deploy when disaster strikes.

“Any word on whether you’re heading to Japan?” I asked, even though I knew the answer.

“We’re packing up now. Just trying to figure out where to land. The airport is still under water.”

Over the next few hours I would talk to roboticists heading over to try and dig people out of the rubble. I spoke with a scientist who was in Tokyo when the quake happened, presenting at an earthquake conference. I spoke with a Canadian man who had been up all night, trying to call his daughter who had been teaching English in Sendai, the town closest to the epicentre of the quake. He still hadn’t heard anything.

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There’s a fine line between being fearless and being heartless. In j-school, we were shown a horror reel of some of the worst things out there – suicides on camera, dead bodies in the streets, even reporters getting shot and cameramen filming the murder as they run for their own lives. Mothers learning that their children have been murdered, and the cameras rolling as she collapses in grief. And after each horrific sight, our professor asked us – would you show it? Would you air this footage for the sake of news?

You might think it would be a cut and dry answer. But it sparked a huge debate within our group that still gets hashed up to this day.

At the time, I wondered if and when I would get to a point in my career where I would get to make such a decision, and now, 4 years after graduation, it has come up far more often than I’d ever like. Especially covering something like Japan. Or Chile. Or Haiti. And every time I cut a story and have to sift through the footage coming in, I think back to that class and the point behind it. I think back to how passionately I felt towards not censoring myself, how strongly I felt that the audience should turn to news to get the full story, not some soft, cushioned version of the truth. War involves death, why not show it? Mothers grieve, that’s part of the story. I’d want to know the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

Wouldn’t you?

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It’s been 6 days since I was woken up by that phone call, and we’re still covering the death-destruction-drama. After almost a week, your brain turns quite numb to the horrors of it all. I’ve seen the tsunami footage so much, the footage that terrified me to my very core only a few days ago, and now I find myself saying “Yeah, slap that on there. Can you make it go slower?”

And it’s a survival tactic that we have to use. If you’re surrounded by horror for a week straight, your brain has to make light of something to keep from going bonkers. We still have to sleep at night, right?

(Well, ok, I still haven’t been sleeping at night. But I’ve been trying real hard.)

Today, as I saw footage of dead bodies crushed under buildings, bloated bodies washing up onto shore, there was nothing that could make light of that. Nothing that could stop my heart from dropping into my chest, my toes from going numb, and my tongue getting caught in my throat. And I think back to that class, how passionate I was, and I can’t help but pat my metaphorical past self on the head and say, aw, how cute and idealistic, but in the real world, things are different.

Because things are different.

I don’t show dead bodies. I absolutely refuse. People know that there are dead bodies in times of destruction and chaos. The death toll tick-tick-ticks higher and higher by the second on news channels desperate for content to fill their 24 hour news mandate. But I just can’t be the person who makes light of another person’s death. I won’t put it on the air to reduce their whole lives down to “Guy crushed under building #3.” I’m just not that kind of journalist. And I’m ok with that.

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I got a note from the man who I had spoken to on Friday, the man who couldn’t get a hold of his daughter.

She was safe, having evacuated to much higher ground. Her entire home floated away, but she was fine.

He didn’t have to tell me that she was ok. Who am I to him, besides some journalist on the other end of a phone line on one of the worst days of his life? But, he said in the email, he got the impression that I actually cared, so he wanted to let me know. And then he thanked me, thanked the show, for our coverage of the situation. We’ve been actively trying to avoid scaring people more and just giving them the truth, and he appreciated it.

So that.

That’s why I do it.

That’s why I love doing it.

And that’s why, the next time my phone rings at 5 in the morning, I won’t look at it with dread. I’ll answer it – ok, probably dazed – but eager. Hopeful. And ready.

Showtime.

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