Putting a Face to Catastrophe: NPR’s China Earthquake Coverage

I’ve been thinking a lot this week about writing about tragedy, whether as a reporter or as someone who is part of the story. How difficult it must be on so many levels to be witness to suffering on such a mammoth scale. How hard it must be to balance the urges to flee to the comfort of home and family, to stay and help however you can, and/or to report dispassionately on the scenes unfolding before you without inserting yourself into the story.

These thoughts have filtered through my mind this week in the aftermath of massive earthquake in China on May 12 that has left more than 50,000 dead or presumed dead. NPR‘s Melissa Block and Robert Siegel happened to be in Chengdu, approximately 60 miles from the quake’s epicenter, recording stories for a series on Chengdu for All Things Considered. Both have reported extensively in the days following the quake of the scale of the disaster. For me, Melissa Block’s stories in particular have haunted me for days following hearing them. In a story that aired May 14, she followed a couple for an entire day as they searched for their parents and 2-year old son in the rubble of their apartment building. Then today, perhaps knowing that her audience needed some evidence of anything positive to emerge from these events, she reported on some of the miraculous survival stories emerging from the chaos.

In the first story, “Couple Frantic to Find Loved Ones,” the story follows Block in real time as she accompanies Wang Wei and Fu Guanyu to their family’s apartment building:

On Monday, Fu Guanyu dropped off her young son, Wang Zhilu, at his grandparents’ house so she could go to work. Minutes later, the earthquake hit.

She rushed back home and saw their apartment building in ruins. She says soldiers came right away to help, but they had no equipment.

Two days later, the heavy machinery is on the way. As an excavator clears a path, Fu and her husband Wei Wang search the debris, calling for their son.

At the story’s start, the final outcome is unknown, so we find ourselves as listeners hoping against hope that this story will end happily in reunion. Devastatingly, it does not.

In today’s story, “Small Miracles Rise from Earthquake’s Rubble,” Block allows herself to comment on her own reactions of the week, in as much as she admits that she hasn’t begun to process the scale of the disaster. She describes a story going around about a photo of a baby rescued from under the body of his mother, who died kneeling over him in protection:

And, according to Xinhua, in a story that just defies belief, but that you hope is true, the rescue workers also found a cell phone. The mother had tucked it into her baby’s blanket. She had typed a text message on the screen. The message said, “My dear, if you can survive, please remember I love you.”

I cannot pretend to know the emotions and conflicting thoughts that Block, Siegel, or any other reporter over there has felt this week. I do know that both these stories left me in tears, and that according to the comments I read on the NPR site after the May 14 story, many drivers were observed pulling off the road to cry. So by putting a human face to a tragedy so massive that it would be easy to dissociate ourselves from it, NPR, Block, and Siegel should be commended. It’s not only great reporting, but it’s necessary reporting.

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2 Responses to “Putting a Face to Catastrophe: NPR’s China Earthquake Coverage”

  1. Jill Says:

    Wow – that’s fascinating about the comments and the people pulling over – driveway moments indeed huh?

    Were you anywhere near that area when you were in China?

  2. toddiedowns Says:

    When we were in China three years ago, we were in Chongqing, about 200 mi. SE of the quake’s epicenter; Fuling is about 250 mi. away. The news we’ve gotten from that region is that there’s certainly damage, but nothing close to what’s been going on in Chengdu and closer to the epicenter.

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