By the Way

Journalists: We’re good, we’re bad, we’re just like you. And disaster shows our true stripes.

Photojournalist Nick Oza, who came from Macon, Georgia, to help the Sun Herald staff in Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath, visits with a survivor and his cat. Oza is currently covering Hurricane Harvey’s aftermath in southeast Texas for Gannett.
Photojournalist Nick Oza, who came from Macon, Georgia, to help the Sun Herald staff in Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath, visits with a survivor and his cat. Oza is currently covering Hurricane Harvey’s aftermath in southeast Texas for Gannett. File

One CNN reporter showed us this week how a disaster should be covered, while a second from the 24/7 news network demonstrated what not to do.

The public noticed and responded en masse on social media.

Correspondent Drew Griffin abandoned his live shot to rescue a man from a truck, seen over his shoulder dipping into flood waters and beginning to float off.

Griffin didn’t try to interview the man, at least not for long. “Where you from, buddy?” Griffin asked once the man stood on solid ground. He said his name was Jerry Sumrall and he was staying at a nearby motel.

“Oh Lord, well, just take a breath, take a breath and get some water,” Griffin said, putting his hand on Sumrall’s shoulder and sending him on his way — after Sumrall thanked Griffin for saving his life.

A similar scene played out on a Houston interstate, when a local television reporter saw a truck sinking with the driver in the cab and waved down rescuers with a boat.

And then there was the CNN reporter at a shelter in Houston. She has been widely criticized on social media, and written up in publications around the country, for interviewing a mother with her wet, shivering children, who had spent five days waiting for rescue. The mother went off on the reporter.

In the Sun Herald newsroom, this all takes us back to the days after Hurricane Katrina. We talked in our morning news meeting about the different reactions the journalists had to people in need.

One editor remarked that we might have shown more empathy because we were in our own community, talking to people in situations similar to our own: without power, without so many things we possessed just the day before Hurricane Katrina roared in.

But another editor said she thought it had more to do with human nature and how individuals react. I would have to agree. Because, let me tell you, journalists poured into our newsroom from all corners of the country to help us after Katrina, which Harvey might eclipse as the nation’s costliest disaster.

They weren’t from our community, but they helped our neighbors whenever and wherever they could.

We particularly remember the efforts of journalist Mark Washburn and photojournalist Nick Oza, probably because they pretty much riffed off one another like two stand-up comedians. We needed the levity after long days in the field and at our desks.

Those two covered some ground to find Katrina’s stories. Along the way, they handed out bottled water and newspapers.

Digital editor Kate Magandy recalled that Oza gave his shoes to a barefoot man. Well, he did get some barnacle-encrusted beer bottles, still full, from the recipient.

One of our own reporters sat on a porch in Pass Christian, waiting on a hearse with a woman who was cradling her deceased baby. He did not want to talk about it afterward.

And then there were the mountains of supplies and donations these journalists brought with them for Sun Herald staffers devastated by the storm.

They stayed here with us in the Sun Herald building, without power and water, sleeping on the floor and eating Vienna sausages and crackers. They did it because they cared.

We didn’t have so much social media in 2005 that gave people the opportunity to scrutinize and comment on our behavior.

But seeing these different reactions from journalists in southeast Texas just reminds me that generalizations are dangerous, whether talking about the members of a profession, race or nationality.

We’re all individuals and most of us try to do the right thing.

Speaking of which, just one more story. We have so many.

I reached out to Brad Weisenstein, a colleague from the Belleville News-Democrat who was with us after Katrina. One of the editors remembered his act of kindness after the hurricane. It was all in a day’s work for Brad, who emailed me this recollection:

“In the days following Hurricane Katrina, reporter George Pawlaczyk and I were looking for news stories and trying to find some good to do. We were carrying bottled water and canned goods in our rented SUV because we were headed for a more remote area in Hancock County that we expected to have been forgotten by the aid folks.

“We weren't finding many people in need because National Guard and church relief workers had been there well ahead of us. We did find one neighborhood where an older woman in a house dress was sitting in her front yard, cooking.

The neighborhood of small houses had gone a little tribal, and she was feeding her extended family and neighbors stew from a pot on a single-burner turkey fryer. Nope, she said, she didn't really need anything. There was a stack of bottled water cases against a nearby utility pole and they had another stack of cans in their soggy, molding house.

“But we had my camp stove and fuel for it in the SUV. We gave it to her, and she took a case of water and some canned soup, just to be polite to the do-gooders. We left the rest of the goods at a highway intersection and they were gone the next time we passed.”

Anita Lee: 228-896-2331, @calee99

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