Stillaguamish River valley

The Stillaguamish River valley is stunningly beautiful. Groves of fir, cedar and spruce reaching skyward unfurl in ever-increasing numbers as you motor along state highway 530 eastward from the coast in the direction of the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. The cloud cover is low as we approach the tiny community of Oso, and it produces little halos that encircle Whitehorse and Wheeler Mountains.

Signs along the highway indicate “road work ahead.” Suddenly, those once-abundant trees cease and, turning a corner, there’s nothing but flat brown earth on either side of the two-lane road, stretching for a half mile in either direction and peppered with tree limbs and debris. This is the first weekend this road has been opened since a devastating mudslide tore this community apart two and a half months ago.

At 10:37 a.m. on March 22nd – a Saturday – a hill collapsed, sending an ocean of mud across the Stillaguamish River, engulfing the Steelhead Haven neighborhood. The slide moved at 60 miles an hour and within a minute had covered just under one square mile. Entire trees, uprooted like weeds, snapped as the mud took them with it, sounding like rapid gunfire. Forty-two people died that day. One person remains missing.

Today is the first time Scott North, a veteran editor and journalist at The Herald in nearby Everett has been back in a month. Along with 15 other reporters and photographers from news outlets tasked with chronicling the tragedy and its aftermath, he has come to decompress, to take stock, to talk to peers who covered what will likely be one of the biggest stories of their careers.

As part of its mission, the Ochberg Society hosts gatherings designed to help journalists make sense of the effects of covering tragedies like these — both on themselves and the subjects of their stories. Often, those journalists and photographers return home from telling the hardest story of their careers with a sense of isolation from friends and family who don’t understand what they’ve had to do.

Recounting stories of human suffering is tough. It’s tougher when you must internalize the reporting you’ve done and move on to the next story. It’s the nature of the job. But it’s useful to have an outlet to decompress, and the Ochberg Society knows the benefits of peer-support after chronicling difficult stories.

North says it was cold and wet the day the hill came down: “The temperature was in the low 50s. The mud itself was in the low 30s. It was miserably cold, and when the rain came back it made it even worse.”

There was the very real danger of another slide. There was fear of flooding. Those were the conditions under which journalists covering Oso operated — some for weeks on end.

The Mystic Mountain Bed and Breakfast is a restored 1920s dairy barn that sits just the other side of the Stillaguamish River from the slide area. It’s here, on this bright morning in early June, that 22 journalists, photographers and social workers have gathered for a day of talking and connecting around coverage of the devastation down the road.

Stillaguamish River at Lime Kiln Trail from Troy on Vimeo.

Patricia Murphy, a reporter with NPR affiliate KUOW in Seattle, says it’s a privilege to tell trauma stories, but that the work can take an emotional toll. “Having somebody to decompress with afterward is so instrumental,” she said.

The journalists talked about what challenged them most covering this story, from access on the scene of a massive search-and-rescue and recovery effort, to privacy and management concerns. This meant deciding whether to use pictures of victims taken from their Facebook or Twitter profiles; giving survivors the time and space they needed before interviewing them; explaining the how and why of a natural disaster without jumping to conclusions; and deciding how to move on, when the time came, to other top news stories.

North, who wears two hats as writer and editor, had to help manage the needs of staff and the needs of the readership for updates and information. He knew reporters and photographers at the slide scene were hungry and cold, for example, but he also knew they had to get the story.

With so many facing so much, journalists working the Oso story found themselves struggling with something approaching guilt. It hurt to watch people suffering, to repeatedly bear witness to such deep grief and shock.  At the same time, that pain seemed out of place, particularly when measured against the losses and hardships endured by those directly touched by the disaster.

“I know people went into their cars and cried after their shifts. They cried in the showers. They cried in the newsroom. They had permission to do that but they still had stories to write,” North says.

The newspaper was rotating staff, but no one wanted to stop covering the slide. You could try pulling an obviously drained reporter or photographer off the story, North said, but “They wouldn’t even sit down.”

Diana Hefley, the senior crime and courts reporter at The Herald, was having health problems and was on rest when the mudslide hit.  It was difficult for her not to be out at the scene, being there to help community members process their pain. “These are our neighbors in a general sense. We don’t just parachute in and out. We are here to stay and there is a responsibility to get our neighbors’ stories right,” she said.

Her colleagues at The Herald were struggling with the massive challenges of on-the-ground, as-it-happened coverage of the disaster in a remote corner of Snohomish County. A writer got a phone number wrong; another felt like she overstepped in an interview with a mother who’d lost a baby; blame was being pointed before the dead and missing were even correctly counted.

Chuck Taylor created visual explanations of the geology, the neighborhood, the force of the mudslide. He worked to find answers to the “Why” of the story.

But it was the magnitude of the grief — so many dead — and the community’s response that really challenged and inspired the journalists to keep reporting on the people, the place, and what were referred to as “Oso moments” that could be at once beautiful and horrific.

North says: “We spent a lot of time asking questions without revealing that lump in our throat.”

One question that comes up for a number of people is this: how bad should you feel for feeling bad?

“I think of it like this,” Hefley says, “If for a moment I can shoulder a little bit of their pain, then it’s worth it. But it’s a lot to ask of someone. And ‘someones’ do crumble.”

“I was almost ashamed for feeling bad; for feeling pain or discomfort when someone has lost that much,” says another reporter.

Murphy says that she was up there for several days reporting the story and couldn’t sleep at night — but she told herself that she should be grateful she wasn’t pulling someone out of the cold mud; that she had no right to complain about insomnia.

Posey Gruener, a producer who works with Murphy at the Seattle-based KUOW, says she felt challenged moving from Oso coverage onto other news stories and then back again. “I’m not sure I wanted to be full time on the Oso story, but moving from that to a story on City Hall politics felt like I was trivializing both. Going from depth to depth is much better than going from depth to shallow,” she says.

Likewise, Rikki King, a younger reporter on The Herald staff who was in the thick of things from the outset, went to a friend’s wedding in Spokane after covering the slide for seven days straight. “Moving from something so terrible to something so wonderful was very surreal,” she says.

The places affected most by the slide – Darrington, Arlington, Oso – all have a strong sense of  who they are and how they expect people to conduct themselves in the face of suffering. They expected no less of strangers coming to cover the story.  Most people at the Ochberg Society gathering saw the role the national media played as hampering their ability to serve their communities. One journalist described them as “predatory,” shoving cameras in faces. Another says she witnessed a national news reporter walk up to a group of volunteer rescue workers and ask: “Did you find any bodies today?”

“I know these national guys parachute into these things all the time, but are they just desensitized?” asks one reporter.

The journalists were asked to think about the choices they made covering the story that they are proud of.

Jim Haley, now retired from The Herald, says he thought it was a important that the newspaper profiled every single victim of the mudslide. “I thought it was brilliant and sensitive,” he says.

North says it was also a conscious editorial decision early on at The Herald not to publish a  photograph of a body bag. It was used two months after the slide as part of a special section. The image showed people from the community working together to recover a neighbor. Some of those same people went on to spend a month in the mud engaged in more of the same heart-breaking work.  The image documented how people from the valley took care of each other. For them, it was personal, and the newspaper waited to publish the image until they were ready to talk about that aspect of the story.

Several journalists in attendance said their outlets focused more on the human stories in the aftermath of the tragedy rather than on who or what was to blame. “There’s plenty of time for what went wrong; for accusation,” Hefley says. “These are our neighbors, so it’s time for tribute, not finger-pointing.”

She adds that it was also vital to be right rather than first with the news. North says that at The Herald,  each family who lost a loved one or who had a relative still missing was assigned a reporter so that they weren’t passed from stranger to stranger.

We asked what the assembled reporters would want other journalists covering future disasters to know, based on their experiences covering Oso.

“That you’ve got to take care of yourselves if you do this work,” North says. “Make sure you take breaks; make sure you eat regular meals.”

“I found it helpful to forge a relationship with one other person on staff to talk to,” says Gruener. “Someone who has the empathy and ability to understand. Everyone has to have somebody they can pull aside.”

Herald photographer Genna Martin says it’s important not to forget these are real people you’re reporting on — and this should be uppermost in your mind, even in the language you use in the newsroom.

It’s problematic when photos of tragic events are posted on social media and people in journalism make comments that are insensitive to victims.  “Saying ‘look at these great photos’ just sounds awful,” Martin said. “These are people who have lost family members or their homes. You’re just thinking aesthetically. There are no ‘good’ pictures, because they’re all sad.”

Alexa Vaughn of the Seattle Times says she felt incredibly thankful for the kindness shown by the people in Darrington to the local media there to cover the story. “After community meetings, they’d hug us,” she says. “There was a group of photographers and reporters in the corner of the community center, and the mayor would come over and check on us regularly — to make sure we were okay.”

Eric Stevick, a veteran Herald reporter, says he ended up talking to seven grieving families. He says it was important not to rush the interviews; not to seem like he was in a hurry. “Each of their circumstances was different. They can sense if someone is thinking about their deadline, and so we decided early on we’d be taking a long-range approach.”

Stevick was invited to memorial services for some of the dead; families appreciated him coming — not in his capacity as a reporter, but as a person they knew cared. This led to many other family members wanting to talk to him afterward so he could eulogize their loved ones in print.

A number of journalists said it was important to look for stories that showed how people rose up bigger than the event – searching out those moments of grace and power of the human spirit.

“And there were so many of them in Oso,” says North. “There are so many good people. If you can’t come out of a story like Oso and feel better about your fellow man, you’re dead inside.”

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