How lessons from covering a bombing and a tornado will help you cover a pandemic

Ziva Branstetter covered the OKC bombing, the Joplin tornado and a botched execution in Oklahoma. Now she's helping direct coronavirus coverage

March 25, 2020

Ziva Branstetter isn’t new to covering tragedy.

She covered the Oklahoma City bombing, the country’s deadliest act of domestic terrorism. She was on the ground shortly after the 2011 tornado in Joplin, Missouri, which killed more than 150 people. She was one of the few reporters on site when Oklahoma botched the execution of Clayton Lockett, and she and her colleague Cary Aspinwall garnered a Pulitzer nod for their look into what caused it.

Now, Branstetter is The Washington Post’s corporate accountability team editor where she and her colleagues, like many reporters across America, are focused on the COVID-19 pandemic.

Branstetter shared her tips for covering an ongoing story that seems insurmountable, how to pivot to enterprise writing after initial breaking stories, how to deal with the possibility of becoming the story yourself and how to recover from the tragedy you report on.

Put in work on bread and butter reporting

Although the Oklahoma City bombing, Joplin tornado and botched Lockett execution stories seem disparate, Branstetter said the initial stages of those stories had something in common.

“The thing that’s similar about all of them is you’re in the middle of what I call the news fire hose,” she said. “You’re holding it and it’s pointing at you. You’ve got to be able to prioritize.”

Reporters can’t neglect vital, immediate community stories, such as updates on case counts and death counts.

“You’ve got to make sure you’re covering the information important to your community, bread and butter,” she said. “You can’t just go off and do enterprise and not take care of that business.”

Reporters also need to offer portrayals of the moment, what Branstetter called “slice of life” stories. These explore the context in which the event took place and its perhaps unexpected fallout.

“You have to look, as a reporter, how we can be telling the full spectrum of this story,” she said.

After the bombing in Oklahoma City, misinformation led to false accusations against a Middle Eastern man in the community. His wife underwent so much harassment because of it, the stress triggered a miscarriage. The family sat down with Bransetter and shared their story. After the Joplin tornado, residents took breaks from sifting through the debris that was their homes to share their experiences with Branstetter.

Approaching people in situations like these, likely the most trying moments of their lives, can be terrifying. But when you do so with respect and empathy, Branstetter said, it’s not common to be turned down.

Lastly, reporters can get caught up in competition or guilt that makes them prioritize quantity over quality.

“Nobody is going to say you did 100 stories and you did 90 and you did 50,” Branstetter said. “Nobody cares who won the sprint of the day at the end of this thing.”

Pivot to providing context

After the initial breaking coverage, reporters need to start implementing stories that help their audiences understand what’s happening and what’s coming.

“The Marty Baron message is, ‘Either break news or break ground,’” Branstetter said, in reference to the Washington Post’s editor whose tenacity was made famous by the film “Spotlight.” “In this situation, I think we are looking for ways to explain this to people.”

It’s also time to start looking at accountability stories. You’ll be getting inundated with topical press releases from government organizations and public relations teams. Government organizations, for example, start issuing scam warnings after natural disasters, but those don’t offer a look into who is being scammed or why. PR pitches will tell you only what their clients are doing right. Each of those is fodder for a quick-hit story, but that isn’t the most effective way to build aftermath coverage.

“I would much rather spend my time — instead of trying to skim the surface on all these things coming at you  — digging into where the harm is mostly to occur,” Branstetter said.

She recommended two reporting tools to keep story ideas developing.

First, keep a list of follow up stories that come to mind in initial breaking reporting. You might think you’ll remember, but you likely won’t. Share it with your colleagues to bounce ideas off one another.

Another tool to work on together is a timeline of major events. It will help you keep the narrative, dates and amount of time you’ve been working on a particular arc straight. For example, with the coronavirus story, one place to start is how many weeks it’s been since your community’s first diagnosis.

Be ready to become the story

Reporters can become the story in historic news events. We’ve seen this already with COVID-19, when reporters have gotten diagnosed with the disease themselves.

When Branstetter covered Oklahoma’s botched execution, she was one of a handful of reporters in the room for an event that became international news. She and her colleague Cary Aspinwall competed on that coverage against the world’s major outlets and ended up in the spotlight.

They were proud to represent their outlet, which was fighting above its weight, Branstetter said. But it also was a service to lift the veil on the journalistic process, so that readers, viewers and listeners could learn how coverage like this comes to be.

“Let the viewing audiences know how hard journalists work in these cases,” she said. “We think no one will care or it’s too inside baseball, but it’s important to do.”

She said in these instances the first step is getting full buy-in with the higher-ups. Then, let yourself believe you deserve to be there.

Take care of your wellbeing

Covering tragedy takes a mental toll. Branstetter warned against compartmentalizing and telling yourself you’ll deal with it when this is all over.

“That’s the old school way,” she said. “We did it during the bombing. That’s not healthy at all.”

Reaching out for professional help is good when it’s available. It’s also OK to reach out to more senior reporters who have covered similarly tough issues, who can commiserate and offer advice.

“None of us have ever covered anything like (COVID-19), but there are some sort of feelings that I’m having and people who covered the bombing are having,” she said. “There are some similarities.”

She talked about something reporters can relate to even in the best of times: feeling guilty about taking time to yourself to recover from a busy spell.

“You have to realize that if you want to be your most effective for your organization, and more importantly the readers, you’ve got to be on your game,” she said. “And to be on your game, our bodies and minds don’t run 24/7 — or even 16 hours a day. You need to have rest. You need to eat.”

She also recommended finding ways to stay connected with the people who care about you outside of work and keeping them in the loop on what you’ve been doing.

“Sometimes I’ve printed out stories, cut out headlines to share with family,” she said. “Sharing with your community of people who support you is important. You lose track of how good the work we’re all doing is.”

Catherine Sweeney is a freelance reporter covering newsrooms’ response to COVID-19. You can reach her at catherinejsweeney@gmail.com or @cathjsweeney on Twitter. 

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