Telling Tsunami Stories, One Scene at a Time

NPR's Jason Beaubien has been in Sri Lanka since December 28, filing reports for NPR. I had heard reporters at the scene of the tsunami disaster say words failed to describe what they have witnessed. Since words are the currency of radio, I wondered, how was he approaching his storytelling?

He answered that question -- and a couple of others -- in an e-mail he sent me:

One of the most frustrating things about this disaster is that in radio you can only tell one scene at a time. Covering these tsunamis -- part of what is so powerful about being here is that it's not just one town that's wiped out and suffering. The next town you drive to is also wiped out and then the next and then the next. Words do fail to convey the scope of this.

I called our reference desk to ask how far away I am from the epicenter. He got back to me with 932 miles. I didn't believe him. It didn't make sense. I couldn't possibly be that far away. I quietly asked my editor to make sure the reference librarian (who's impeccable) hadn't temporarily lost his mind.

And the bodies... it's one thing to have one body, one family that's lost a father or a son. But to have body after body being pulled from the wreckage -- how do you convey the effect of the 13th body? It taxes you as a radio reporter to get across the essence of this story... which is that this isn't just about a tragic event. It's about a tragic event times one million ...

The pace is hectic. First of all we are 11 hours ahead of Washington, so every show wants something regardless of what time it is ...

I feel like I'm filing constantly. I'm on in the morning, noon, and night. Right now I'm checking e-mail. It's 10:42 p.m. here. I've got a driver coming at 3 a.m. to take me up to the northeast coast. I'm hoping to sleep on the ... 8-hour drive. I'll try to file for tomorrow's "All Things Considered" once I'm there.

I responded to Jason's e-mail by promising to call him toward the end of his 8-hour drive, which I did. 

When I reached him, he was in a car headed from Colombo to the northeast coast of Sri Lanka. He described it as a place of "small villages wiped off the map." He warned me we were likely to lose our shaky mobile phone connection at any moment.

He told me he was delighted that NPR has sent producer Anne Hawke to work with him -- the first time he has ever worked with a field producer. She arrived January 2 and "just sort of dove in." Between them, they make calls, handle logistics like drivers and translators, and manage two uncooperative editing systems, both of which have crashed as they tried to prepare stories.

He welcomes the help, noting that he has yet to encounter another U.S. news crew during his travels. "Usually on big stories," he said, "all the journalists are at the Sheraton and you run into them at the bar at night." This time, he noted that the story is "spread out ... we're not leaning on one another."

And this time, the story isn't just big. He said it is "unlike any story I have ever covered." He called it "mind-boggling."

I asked about the impact on him, noting the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma's concerns about the emotional impact of this story on reporters and photographers. He replied, "It certainly is an emotional story. To see such personal loss..."

Soon after, our connection broke up. I heard Jason mention corpses, drowned and battered bodies, bloating, distorted faces, and then I lost him entirely.

Redialing didn't work. Our interview was over. But Jason Beaubien's reporting day from the devastated northeast coast of Sri Lanka had only begun.

  • Jill Geisler

    Jill helps news managers learn how to lead her favorite people in the world - journalists. Good journalists, she points out, question authority and resist "spin." It takes exceptional leaders to build trust, along with the systems and culture that grow great journalism.


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