Covering Oklahoma City: A Look Back
The children who died in Oklahoma City still have the power to move us.
There were two sets of brothers. Aaron Coverdale was five, and his brother Elijah was just two. After the bombing, their father carried a picture of the smiling boys through the streets of Oklahoma City, in a futile search for someone who had seen them come out of the building alive.
The Smith brothers were even closer in age. The family pictures show Chase, three, and Colton, two, always together. Their mother said then that they never wanted to be separated. They went to preschool together at America's Kids, the day-care center in the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building.
And of course, there was Baylee. She is the one we all remember, her battered body cradled in a firefighter's arms. Why is it that when I think of that picture, I always remember the dainty little-girl socks on her dangling feet?
Baylee Almon had turned one just the day before.
Monday, it will be nine years since the bombing. At the time, I was managing editor of The Wichita Eagle, just a three-hour car trip up Interstate 35 from Oklahoma City. The Oklahoma City bombing was the first big story for me as a newsroom leader, and it remains the touchstone for me in thinking about all that has followed.
April 21, 1995:
Poynter Online Links: Remembering the Oklahoma City Bombing
On April 19, 1995, we looked at the ruins in Oklahoma City and called what happened there unthinkable. In the nine years since, we've seen the unthinkable trumped by the unfathomable.
The master story of this decade for journalists has been covering fear. We started on that path at the Murrah Building, and it has led us through Columbine and roadside snipers and anthrax in the mail. It has led us to New York and Washington on Sept. 11, 2001.
We've learned a lot during that time about how to provide readers with the information, the context, the perspective they need to try to understand these events. In looking back at copies of the newspaper I edited that April nine years ago, I see the roots of those lessons, how far we've come, and what we still need to learn to be ready next time.
These are my lessons from Oklahoma City:
Editing matters. One of the things we did early in the coverage of Oklahoma City was to think about the elements of the larger story. We wanted to think about the categories of questions readers would have, and tried to organize the information in ways that answered those questions as seamlessly as possible. We labeled like mad — labeled the tops of pages prominently, so that readers knew what the stories on those pages were about, labeled graphics and information boxes, provided statistics in the page rails, quotes along the page bottoms. We double-, triple-, quadruple-edited the pages, so that each page conveyed layers of information — in stories, in visuals, in graphics, in pullouts. We made order out of a chaotic mass of information, so that the reader didn't have to. Newspapers took that imperative to a new level during Sept. 11, and we have to continue pushing to get even better at it. We live in an age where information is plentiful, but knowledge is in dangerously short supply. Sophisticated editing can help readers leave our pages feeling smarter, rather than overwhelmed.
Tone matters. Oklahoma City was such an overwhelming event, and the coverage had to reflect the whole range of emotions our readers were feeling. We needed to tell readers about the lives lost; we did that sporadically, sometimes with power, but we had yet to learn the lessons The New York Times taught with "Portraits of Grief.'' We needed to start asking the critical questions about how this happened and who did it. We needed to reflect the tremendous outpouring of love and assistance that came into Oklahoma City from across the world. In stories like this, we cannot afford to strike a single dispassionate note; we have to play the entire symphony.
Visuals are a vital storytelling tool. I'd always known this, but I didn't feel it in my gut until Oklahoma City. On April 19, 1995, we looked at the ruins in Oklahoma City and called what happened there unthinkable. In the nine years since, we've seen the unthinkable trumped by the unfathomable.That photograph of Baylee Almon told the world the horror of what had happened in a way that no words could approach. The graphics that outlined the layout of the building and where the bomb-laden truck had parked made it clear to me that the bomber had to know he was parking directly in front of the day-care center. Playing images boldly and devoting resources to reporting graphics are essential elements in providing readers with the understanding they need. Sometimes reading isn't enough; we have to see to fully understand.
We can't sacrifice history and context to immediacy. When I look at the Oklahoma City coverage, I see very little context about the larger questions of global terrorism, the roots of domestic terror, the medical technology used to save lives, and the question of how safe government buildings really are. We were so focused on the now that we didn't take the step back to provide readers with the background information that would have broadened their understanding. Newspapers are well-qualified to do this, and we should look at part of our mission as educating readers, even including bibliographies for those who want to read more about a particular topic.
Wall-to-wall coverage has changed a lot since 1995. Old newspaper pages are a time capsule of sorts, and I found one interesting nugget buried in the pages of the Oklahoma City coverage. A short sidebar explored how many people were going online to discuss the bombing. With a gee-whiz tone, the story explained that there were 15 news chat rooms operating on America Online, all "filled to capacity,'' with up to 23 people posting.
The Internet has come a long way in these nine years. In a world where information is ubiquitous on the Web, of 24-hour news cycles where the most In crisis, we can unite our communities.incremental development qualifies as "breaking news,'' we can saturate readers and viewers with noise and neglect the meaning. The Wichita Eagle published four full pages of Oklahoma City coverage each day for more than a week. At the time, that seemed an enormous amount of space to devote to a single story. Now, it seems skimpy by comparison.
But those pages contained a lot of information, and not much that one would consider extraneous. There was an economy of words, a lack of repetition in subject matter. The coverage seems tightly focused. As we go "wall-to-wall,'' we'd be well served to ask ourselves about the importance and the value of the information we're conveying, and whether in some cases, less is actually more. We should remember the value of restraint.
In crisis, we can unite our communities. It happened during Oklahoma City, when we provided readers with ways they could help in the relief effort. It happened during 9/11, when we told people where they could give blood or how to write sympathy cards to New York fire stations.
Our highest value to our communities and to democracy is in our reporting, in the dispassionate search for answers to the whys and hows of such events. We serve that role uniquely, and we need to bring all of our energies to that task.
But we should never forget that we are part of the communities we serve. We are not diminished as journalists when we look at the picture of Baylee Almon and our eyes fill with tears.