August 13, 2014
Photo courtesy CNN

Photo courtesy CNN

In the months ahead, as I show journalists examples of excellent reporting, I will use a story that CNN’s senior international correspondent Ivan Watson filed this week.

Watson and his CNN crew flew in a helicopter with the Iraqi air force and fighters with the Kurdish peshmerga to drop supplies and rescue 20 or so Iraqis from Mount Sinjar, where they had fled attacks from the Sunni extremists of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

“We landed on several short occasions, and that’s where — amid this explosion of dust and chaos — these desperate civilians came racing towards the helicopter, throwing their children on board the aircraft. The crew was just trying to pull up as many people as possible,” Watson said.

Watson said in his story he worried that some of the boxes the crew had tossed out may have hit some of the rushing crowd.

Tuesday, a day after Watson’s flight, New York Times journalist Alissa Rubin, was injured when the helicopter she was riding in crashed. Like the flight Watson was on, the Times said Rubin and a photojournalist were on a flight delivering supplies to “stranded Yazidi refugees in the Sinjar mountains of northern Iraq.” The Times said the helicopter landed upside down and the survivors “had to crawl out of the wreckage.” According to the article, one of the pilots died, Rubin had a concussion, a broken wrist and possibly fractured ribs and photojournalist Adam Ferguson suffered minor injuries. Also in the helicopter was award-winning photographer Moises Saman, who on assignment for Time. He filed photos of the crash scene. Saman said he was pinned down by some debris but escaped serious injury.

As I watched Watson’s story, it reminded me of the iconic story filed by CBS News’ Bruce Dunning in 1975. Dunning and crew were aboard a World Airways jet that attempted to rescue women and children from Da Nang. Instead, the very soldiers who were supposed to defend South Vietnam pushed their way onto the jet. They crowded into wheel wells and clung to the rear ladder of the plane as it left the ground. Some 268 people boarded the flight. Only five were women and two or three were children. Columbia University’s Journalism School included Dunning’s report on a list of 100 “Great Stories.”  Like Ivan Watson’s reporting this week from Iraq, Dunning’s story is rich with the tiny telling details and chaotic sounds of the desperate flight.

Bruce Dunning and Ivan Watson understood that the way to make video storytelling more powerful is to “explain” the video, not “narrate” it. Dunning explained who the men were who shoved their way onto the jet. He explained the flight’s intended purpose, then he explained the reality of who got on and who didn’t. The video didn’t show that, he had to explain it.

Similarly, Watson didn’t just say one girl was crying, we can see that. He explained that she was crying because her father was left behind.

Ivan Watson didn’t stop with reporting for TV. He also captured still images and posted them on his Twitter account.

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Think about it. If you had just endured that harrowing chopper flight, witnessed the gunfire hustled frantic children and mothers onto a chopper while it lifted off and risked your life flying through a war zone would you have thought to capture a few frames for your Twitter account?  Journalists like Ivan Watson, Bruce Dunning, Alissa Rubin, Moises Saman and the photojournalists, translators and fixers who make their reporting possible awe me with their talent and make me grateful for their dedication to find truth and report it.

This article was updated to add information about photographer Moises Saman also being on the helicopter that crashed in the Sinjar mountains of northern Iraq.

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Al Tompkins is one of America's most requested broadcast journalism and multimedia teachers and coaches. After nearly 30 years working as a reporter, photojournalist, producer,…
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