St. Petersburg Times reporter Meg Laughlin recently spent eight days in Haiti and the Dominican Republic covering the aftermath of the earthquake. She managed to file a series of short narratives, mostly at the rate of one a day. Earlier this week, she talked with us about finding stories with local elements, using small moments to tell the big story, and the monumental challenge of post-disaster logistics. Here are excerpts from our conversation:
You’ve done reporting from war zones before, haven’t you?
Yes, Afghanistan and Iraq. I’ve been to Haiti a bunch of times, but not for about 10 years.
How was Haiti the same or different, in terms of the humanitarian crisis versus the war zone?
The magnitude of the disaster and the number of people whose lives were destroyed felt much greater in Haiti. When I was in Iraq and saw so many injured Iraqis, it was very often the U.S. who was injuring them. So there wasn’t that sense of guilt in Haiti, but in other ways it was much worse.
You sometimes offer a small and positive note to end your stories. How do you straddle that line between reporting on the magnitude of the suffering but also offering something else? I’m thinking of the birth of the baby in the story about the missing brother.
I was really happy that that happened the way that it did because I was having trouble seeing my way out of the rubble. That was a moment that helped me to do that.
In reporting on humanitarian crises, sometimes there’s a worry about dulling readers’ response to the survivors by making it seem like they come from the kinds of places where this is just how life is. Did you struggle with that?
I did try to pick really small things to tell the big story. Like the amputations piece—a little girl in a body cast with the lower half of her body crushed putting latex gloves on the feet of the naked Barbie and screaming “Socks!” I was showing that this is the face of the nation now, but let’s look at it with this guy coming from Tampa to find his brother. Let’s look at it through the eyes of this nursing student who’s just had her leg taken off. I don’t know that most of it was very upbeat, but I did try to tell it in a very personal way.
You did more than one account with a storytelling approach while you were there. Was that your decision, or did your editors ask you to focus on narratives?
The assignment was that there would be so much coming out of Haiti, so much wire news, that I needed to tell stories about people from this area, from the Tampa, St. Pete and central Florida area—or from Florida. So I was always trying to find people and focus in on what someone from Florida was doing. That in itself made it more of a narrative, because I wasn’t telling the big news story. I was writing about a person doing something.
A lot of reporters seemed to find that amputation theme at the same time. A few stories ran that were about the same length as yours that were straight news pieces. But your piece was a real story. How long did you have to turn that around?
Every piece I did—except for the last one— I had one day. On the amputation story, I got to the hospital in the afternoon, and I had to file fairly early in the evening. I had no time, and the logistics were terrible. I had no idea how I would get from the hospital back to where I could sit and write. Often I was writing in a moving car. It was really tough, the logistics of trying to get those stories done.
I had set a goal of trying to get a different story every day: search and rescue, amputations, relief, someone trying to find a family member. And then I had the added challenge of trying to find someone from this area. So I was running around madly trying to find a story, trying to take notes and make it personal, and then finally trying to get it written and filed. It was very, very rushed.
Was there anything you wish you had been able to do? I was wondering if you had even had time to confirm the cannibalism story about Fenel, Daniel Thelusmar’s brother. In that situation, where you didn’t have access to resources you would normally use to check things out, did you find it hard to check your stories?
I had heard that things like that were happening [back then]. I had been in Haiti around that time and knew that story wasn’t that far-fetched. I had also found Daniel Thelusmar, who was the subject of that story, to be very credible. But you’re right, I could not go pull clips and talk to people to confirm that had happened in that market at that moment.
But you had been in Haiti before.
Yes, and I knew at that time there were reports of that kind of thing happening. I also found Daniel [Thelusmar] to be laid back, low key and not sensational. And that helped.
You asked about regrets. I think my greatest regret is that some of the people that I wrote about and was so worried about, I lost track of. They were carted in trucks out of the hospital. I’m very worried about what has happened to them. I’ve asked people to try to find them and see if they’re okay, but I haven’t had much luck, and that’s really concerning to me.
Is there anything else you’d say to someone else who may be sent into this kind of situation? Do you have any tips?
One of the things is if you’re not trying to do a story every day, you have a little more time to get the story and sit down and write it. We were just so rushed. So trying to arrange to have a little bit of time would be good.
The editor on these stories was Bill Duryea, which really helped. For instance, on the amputation story, I was at this hospital, trying to see amputations, going around talking to people and trying to get to know them, so that it wouldn’t be just one more leg removed, but it would be the story of the nursing student who’d come out of poverty and had put her life into her career and now it was over. I was doing that on my end, but he was seeing it as the new tragic face of Haiti. Having him on the [other] end with an overview was really helpful.
How did you get the stories to him?
I had a little tiny notebook computer that was not connected, so I would type into that, then put it on a Zip drive and run it over to the photographer who had a satellite phone, and she, Melissa Lyttle, would send it.
Running, rushing, not eating, it was nonstop. Phones go dead all the time, so you can’t get to people. You’re trying to call in something or letting them know you’re trying to do this piece, and you cannot get in touch with your editor. Or you’re in a car and you can’t use the satellite phone. There would be hours where Bill wouldn’t know if we even had a story. I’d say, “I’ll call you at 4 and tell you,” and then I couldn’t get through till 7.
The logistics are much harder than you think they’re going to be. You think you’re going to get there and have people who are going to take you places, and that you’ll leave at 6 in the morning and it will take two hours and you’ll be at this place at this time. But you leave at 9 in the morning and it takes four hours, and the people who were supposed to be there aren’t there, so you wait another three. Everything takes much longer than you think it will, so allow for that. We couldn’t. That was tough.
[For more on Laughlin’s reporting from Haiti, read our commentary on her amputation story.]