All entries for Monday 13 September 2010

September 13, 2010

People are the story

Nine years ago last Saturday, The Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre in New York collapsed after two hijacked airliners crashed into the buildings.

Much was, and is, written about that morning of September 11, 2001, when Al-Qaeda- affiliated hijackers flew two 767 jets into the Towers in a co-ordinated suicide attack that killed 2,752.

But the stories that are remembered are the stories that tell us about individuals - about the people who survived the horror, and stories about those who died.

Pulitzer prize winner Jim Dwyer together with four other writers and editors from the New York Times put together a lengthy but immensely moving article describing the two Towers' final 102 minutes: Fighting to Live as the Towers Died.

It is a powerful piece of reporting and writing. It was pieced together after eight months of detailed interviews with relatives of the deceased, survivors, police and fire brigade and transcriptions of emergency services’ recordings. The article's strength comes in the way the narrative is put together using the voices of those trapped in upper floors of the Towers to relive those final terrifying moments. 

Immediately after the first plane struck, every television and radio station, every magazine and newspaper worldwide was reporting on the unbelievable sight.

Though 9/11 is an extreme event, it does highlight the dilemma of the journalist.

How does he or she find the angle, the different take on the same event that will stand out over the hundreds of other articles covering the same event?

Jim Dwyer found a way. His journalistic lesson was: The bigger, the smaller. Dwyer based a series of articles he wrote immediately after  9/11 on specific objects with the story woven around them.

For example: A family photograph found in the rubble;  the tale of six men, one a window cleaner, who escaped from a lift trapped between floors in the north tower by cutting through three layers of plasterboard with the metal edge of two squeegees. In Fighting for Life 50 Floors Up, With One Tool and Ingenuity the article tells how the men ran out of the building five minutes before it collapsed. In fewer than 1,000 words, Dwyer captured the drama, the horror, the heroics, and the survival of average New Yorkers acting in extraordinary ways. 

Other articles in his 'Objects' series featured handcuffs used to dig people out, daffodils to be planted in a city park by a father who lost a son, and a yellow baby buggy in The Kindness of Strangers

Dwyer's was great reporting and evocative writing.  He found a 'human' way to reflect the extent and extreme emotions of the inhuman tragedy.

And that's what reporting and writing is about. Humanising events so people can identify with them. 

When you are looking for a story, try to get to the people who are closest to the action. Talk to those who are involved rather than just figures of authority.

As a writer, faced with reporting an incident, you will look about you, you will talk to....friends, taxi drivers, shopkeepers, the old lady in the bus queue. People are the story - what they do, what they see, what they feel.

Another major retrospective this week was the marking of 70 years since the start of the Blitz which saw Britain sustain prolonged periods of heavy bombing by the Nazi Germany air forces from Sept 1940 to May 1941.

A Britain at War article in the Daily Telegraph online makes a Blitz feature relevant to today's readers by using a gallery of pictures which fuse the images of streets as they are in 2010 with images of the same street as it was in the Blitz.

Take a moment to listen to Bandits of the Blitz an audio feature by Duncan Campbell on BBC Radio 4. The BBC has run a series of programmes to mark the start of the bombing campaign.

This particular audio feature is (like Dwyers' Twin Towers feature) a sideways look at a subject. In Campbell's feature, we are told about those who took advantage of the sick and the dying, who looted and stole (even from bodies as they were carried from the rubble or lying in a town hall waiting for relatives to identify them) and made it rich on the back of others' misery during those months of chaos.

It is a fascinating feature - not least because it takes an off-beat look at a segment of history which is often portrayed as the time communities and individuals pulled together, and good will and honesty all round. And again, it wins hands down because it is a feature about people, it carries interviews with those who were there - and it grabs the reader's interest because its subject matter stands out from the many thousands of words written last week about the Blitz.

And that is what feature writers have to do. Find that angle, that particular look at a subject which will stop readers and listeners in their tracks.

And today's journalist has an arsenal of weapons to help tell that story.  He can (and is expected to) choose and use video, audio, photography, graphics and the written word to communicate an event, big or small, to readers.

But whatever medium or selection of media is used - the story is always about people.

Sally Ballard is the tutor for the accredited 25-week online certificate course, Writing for Publication, run by Warwick University’s Centre for Lifelong Learning  starting in October 2010. For details see

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