- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 8, 2005

Tsunami coverage

The staff at the Associated Press’ Asian editing hub in Bangkok lost no time in learning about the undersea earthquake off the coast of Sumatra that set off the Dec. 26 tsunami: It shook their building.

Unsure exactly what had happened or how widely it had been felt, the editors in Bangkok were already contacting reporters and freelance “stringers” around the region when the giant waves rolled ashore on beaches from Indonesia to East Africa.

Most of those reporters and editors have been working 17- and 18-hour days ever since, led by Asia Editor Patrick McDowell, who has been coordinating the coverage in the field. At the AP’s New York headquarters, the material has been reorganized and edited for American newspapers by Nick Tatro, who on Friday had his first day off since the quake.

All newspapers take pride in covering important events with their own reporters, and often go to great lengths to get a staff byline on a story.

But not even the richest papers have the resources to cover an event as wide-ranging as the tsunami — which directly affected up to a dozen countries and prompted a relief effort involving dozens more — without relying in large part on agency reporting.

AP Foreign Editor Debbie Seward says her organization has had roughly 60 text reporters working on the tsunami story for the past two weeks, in addition to almost three dozen editors in Bangkok and New York.

Many of those reporters are stringers based in remote places who get paid only when called on to file a story. With much of the past two weeks’ news coming from places like Phuket, Aceh and the Andaman Islands, the story simply could not have been covered without a strong stringer network already in place.

That network, together with the early warning provided by the jolt to the office in Bangkok, allowed the AP to get a very early start on the story, Ms. Seward said.

“These are human stories, and that is what you have to tell,” Ms. Seward said. “And for that you have to get there very quickly, before people start to process the information. You have to get them to tell what they experienced while it’s still fresh in their minds. In a lot of places, our reporters got there before the first aid workers arrived.”

Putting it together

But on a story as far-reaching as the tsunami, getting the information is only half the battle. With material flowing in from a dozen or more countries at once, editors have to sort through it all and organize it into comprehensible form.

The AP, like all the agencies, typically moves separate stories on developments in individual countries, the international aid response, U.S. reaction, and so forth. But they also file “round-ups” incorporating all the most important information into a single story that can lead a front page or serve as the only tsunami story in a smaller paper.

“This is a global disaster, and with cell phones and satellites the information comes in so quickly,” Ms. Seward said. “To organize it requires tremendous focus. You have to sort of sift through it all very quickly. It is always a matter of deciding what you are going to leave out as much as what to put in.”

Ms. Seward said the AP benefited from having an editing hub in Bangkok, where editors with an intimate knowledge of the region were able to direct the coverage and do the initial job of organizing it into stories.

In New York, it was Mr. Tatro who handled much of the final editing for American papers.

“He has a lot of experience with this kind of thing and knows how to thread a story together,” Ms. Seward said. “The distance from the story allows you to see the big picture.”

Wire service reporters and editors know that after all their time and effort, many newspapers will publish their work without so much as a byline, or even rewrite some of the information under a staff byline.

“The people who work for a wire agency know where they work,” Ms. Seward said. “They are professionals doing a job, and they know it is valued by other professionals.”

David W. Jones is the foreign editor of The Washington Times. His e-mail address is djones@washingtontimes.com.

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