Six things I learned from the Moore tornado coverage

As an independent journalist, usually I’m in charge of finding my own work.

But when there was breaking news literally almost in my back yard, suddenly there was more business than I knew what to do about.

I’d just come out of my Norman, Okla., basement (yes, some of us do have basements in Oklahoma) on May 20, after an EF-5 tornado ripped an about 17-mile long gash through Moore, Okla., and parts of Oklahoma City. My mobile started ringing, and it wouldn’t stop for about a week.

One journalist friend at The Oklahoman called to see if I could be available for the Wall Street Journal. Another freelancer friend referred me an NPR interview. Another friend sent me a gig on Huff Post Live. The Weather Channel was referred by journalism professor friends. I turned down more business in two or three days than I’d had in a month.

“But it’s the Wall Street Journal,” my friend pleaded.

“Can’t do it. I’ve already made a commitment,” I told her, incredulous that I was turning down the WSJ.

I wrote a total of eight stories for The Weather Channel website coverage, providing photographs with my Nikon 600.

And my other freelancer friends were just as busy.

Friend and full-time Oklahoma City freelancer Heide Brandes got a call from a former journalism professor with a referral to do tornado coverage for The Washington Post, and she wrote for them for about three days. I referred her the WSJ job and she wrote some for Reuters also.

Brandes’ work for Reuters has continued with other unrelated assignments after the tornadoes.

She may have gotten the initial Reuters stories because of her tornado coverage. But she apparently impressed them enough that she’s done coverage of several other Oklahoma stories, including the recent “Baby Veronica” custody suit.

What did I learn during those hectic days?

-       All of the jobs after the tornadoes came from referrals from journalist friends, colleagues and connections we’d made years before.  Some came from other Society of Professional Journalists freelance committee members. You never know where a referral might come from.

-       Everybody has a story about where they were when the “big one” came through. It’s your job to tell those stories in a sensitive way. People who have been through that kind of trauma often want to talk about it and share their story.

-       It’s important to be self-reliant with your own food and beverages and bring your own ice chest. People who are out on a scene will try to give you food, bottled water and about anything they think would be helpful. But you don’t know when those sandwiches were made or if they were made in an appropriate, healthful way. I made a mistake of eating a sandwich offered to me by a tornado victim after I’d been out all day. Apparently, the sandwich had been out all day too and I got food poisoning. Not good timing when you’re working non-stop.

-       Make it happen. The first request from The Weather Channel was to find some of the hero teachers who covered their students with their bodies. I picked my way around the affected area immediately to one of the two destroyed elementary schools and found a teacher cleaning items out of what was left of her classroom with the help of parents and some students. I was able to turn my first two stories and art for them within about two to three hours. The houses in that development across from the school were reduced to rubble that was no higher than my knees and I interviewed several families searching for whatever they could find. I’ve worked dozens of tornado scenes in my two decades as a journalist, but this was the worst tornado damage I’d ever seen up close.

-       I used a lanyard from a previous Excellence in Journalism conference and inserted business cards, my SPJ membership card and a press pass from another organization and that seemed to look official enough for the police and firefighters to let me into the tornado-affected areas. Best-case scenario would be to have a letter from the media who is employing you, but if you’re already in the field, that may not be possible.

-       Keep your personal website updated and your listing in SPJ’s Freelancer Directory.  When news breaks is not the time to be updating your website or listings. Reminder to self. Let’s get that done this week.

 

Carol Cole-Frowe is a full-time independent journalist and blogger who splits her time between Oklahoma and north Texas. She is also an adjunct journalism professor at The University of Oklahoma.

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