Washington mudslide disaster: the heart of the matter

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More than two weeks after the horrendous mudslide in Oso, Wash., news coverage is taking a different turn. Gone are the frenetic rescue stories and the first profiles of those lost, and in their place are more broad-based stories about those who will help residents recover long-term.

From the Seattle Times comes this piece about the faith community, both local and transplanted, in the wake of the tragedy. While we would expect this type of coverage at this stage in the developing story, this report seems different. Not only is it well-sourced, but it moved me to empathy in a way I didn’t really expect.

People of faith, ministers and chaplains have responded to the deadly March 22 mudslide as a calling. They’re on the ground in Oso, Darrington and Arlington, trying to help shocked survivors pick up and go on. The transition from overwhelming loss to healing will be slow and difficult, they say.

“I’ve been ordained 38 years, so I’ve seen a lot, but I’ve never been a part of something this dramatic and all-encompassing,” said the Rev. Tim Sauer, pastor at the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Arlington and St. John Vianney in Darrington.

“There is a heightened sense of numbness, at least initially. It’s been two weeks now, so the realities are starting to kick in.”

I expected at this point to be told about the scramble for finding housing for the displaced or how hundreds of donors are bringing furniture or clothing to be sorted through by eager volunteers. The living tend to busy themselves non-stop in the activity of serving so that they don’t have time to think, really.

Not so. We instead hear thoughts about “being present” for those who have lost a loved one. “Emotional care” is emphasized by those working close to hurting families.

This story illustrates the presence of ministry in a way few post-disaster pieces even attempt. It’s almost as if the staff understands another role the media might have in a situation like this: to encourage the community to engage in spiritual reflection and to take time to assess their mental health as well as offering physical and emotional assistance to those directly affected.

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Tears and prayers on camera: Did NBC want the full Oprah?

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Anyone who has watched television coverage of tense, painful events has seen it happen. This is especially true of news events that can, in any way, accurately be described as “disasters.”

Years ago, I had a conversation with the late Peter Jennings about what happens next on camera:

Inevitably, a reporter confronts a survivor and asks: “How did you get through this terrible experience?” As often as not, a survivor replies: “I don’t know. I just prayed. Without God’s help, I don’t think I could have made it.”

What follows, explained Jennings, is an awkward silence.

“Then reporters ask another question that, even if they don’t come right out and say it, goes something like this: ‘Now that’s very nice. But what REALLY got you through this?’”

In other words, the person caught up in this panful event did not give the kind of answer that was being sought by the interviewer. Often, Jennings said, the person gives an answer that is rooted in religious faith — a factor that many media superstars fail to take seriously.

But, just as often, the person who has experienced pain or some great lose gives a rather straightforward and dignified answer. At that point the interviewer asks another question that, for media critics, has come to live in infamy. If the person on camera continues to hold his or her emotional act together, then the interviewer starts asking, over and over, variations on this basic question: How. Do. You. Feel. Right. Now.

That’s what is being debated right now, of course, in all of the social-media chatter about the media ethics involved in the infamous interview (see the YouTube at the top of this post) with Olympics skier Bode Miller that was conducted by Chirstin Cooper of NBC Sports. At the heart of this grab-the-viewer scene, of course, is the lingering grief caused by the recent death of his 29-year-old brother, snowboarder Chelone “Chilly” Miller. Here’s one transcript of the key moment in this on-air drama:

Miller: “This [medal] was a little different. I think, you know, my brother passing away — I really wanted to come back here and race the way he sensed it. So this was a little different.”

Cooper: “Bode, you’re showing so much emotion down here, what’s going through your mind?”

Miller: “A lot, obviously. Just a long struggle coming in here. Just a though year.”

Cooper: “I know you wanted to be here with Chilly really experiencing these Games. How much does it mean to come with a great performance for him, or was it for him?”

[Miller began to cry.]

Miller: “It’s just a tough year. I don’t know if it’s really for him. I just wanted to come here and, I don’t know, I guess make myself proud.”

Cooper: “When you’re looking up in the sky at the start … it just looks like you’re talking to somebody, what’s going on there?”

As I have already hinted, these push-for-tears questions tend, as a rule, to make me go rather crazy.

However, there is the chance that this is the rare case in which the interviewer was not only pushing for a tear-soaked TV visual, but for a quote that somehow involved (a) God, (b) the skier’s brother, (c) heaven or (d) all of the above.

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God and faith in Oklahoma tornado coverage

In my first-person account of the Moore, Okla., tornado last week, I predicted that the faith and resiliency of the state’s residents would be a major theme in media coverage.

Sure enough, it has been.

I saw the devastation for the first time Sunday when I made my way to that side of Oklahoma City to work on a Christianity Today piece on the “Faith-Based FEMA”:

At the edge of the disaster zone — just across the street from the decimated Moore Medical Center — teens and adults in cowboy hats cook smoked sausages outside the Central Church of Christ.

This group of volunteers drove 430 miles from Denver City, Texas, southwest of Lubbock, to prepare meals for victims after last Monday’s EF5 tornado destroyed 1,200 homes and killed 24 people, including 10 children.

Inside the church, worshipers — many wearing bright orange “Disaster Assistance” T-shirts — at the Sunday service maneuver around ceiling-high stacks of emergency food and supply boxes delivered on a tractor-trailer by Nashville, Tennessee-based Churches of Christ Disaster Relief Effort Inc.

The church’s marquee sign along Interstate 35 normally grabs drivers’ attention with catchy Bible verses and witty sayings.

But now it declares simply: “Disaster Relief Center.”

Even as President Barack Obama consoles victims and promises the government’s assistance “every step of the way,” the so-called “faith-based FEMA” is already out in force — from Mennonite Disaster Service chainsaw crews to Samaritan’s Purse debris cleanup teams to Presbyterian Disaster Assistance pastoral counselors.

On the Sunday after a major disaster, news organizations often send reporters to cover worship services. The challenge is turning such a predictable assignment into a truly insightful story. I’m not so sure the Los Angeles Times accomplished that feat in its report on Sunday’s services in Moore.

Here’s the lede of the L.A. Times’ story:

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