The vast majority of the time, reaching out to a possible character for a story is easy: just email or call. But what if you don’t have either an email address or a phone number? And further, what if you don’t even have a name?
These are the obstacles Anna Rose MacArthur faced producing a story during a recent Transom Story Workshop. How she solved those problems is imaginative and quite inspiring.
First, let me give a brief overview of the story she was reporting. Back in September, 29-year-old Andrew Munson of Nantucket and his instructor 48-year-old Eldon Burrier of West Lynwood, Washington died in a skydiving accident on Cape Cod. It was a tandem jump and the chute did not fully open.
Anna Rose wanted to know what happened to the jumpers, and was even more curious about two people connected to the accident – John Theriault and Sabine Koch. John discovered the bodies of the student and his instructor in his horse paddock soon after they crashed. Sabine was the girlfriend of the student. She jumped shortly after he did.
Anna Rose got John’s name from newspaper accounts of the tragedy. She easily found his home address online. But, despite her best efforts, she was never able to locate a phone number or an email address. (By the way, I’ve found zabasearch.com to be a useful resource. But even that didn’t help in this case.)
So, Anna Rose did what she used to do as a reporter in Alaska, she started calling people in the town where he lived. She rang municipal centers, senior centers, the library, and other places on the hunt for his phone number. No luck.
A next obvious option for Anna Rose would have been to simply go to John’s house and knock on the door but she didn’t want to do that. She decided against it because she wouldn’t want someone knocking on her door uninvited. Besides, she says, John received quite a bit of media attention. She didn’t want to be perceived as “just another reporter.”
So, she wrote him a letter. Not a typed and printed letter. A hand-written letter. On stationary. And it worked. She mailed it on a Wednesday. John called her on Friday. She ended up interviewing him twice.
As for Sabine Koch, Andy’s girlfriend, Anna Rose didn’t have her name. The newspapers never included it. What the papers did include was Andy’s hometown – Nantucket, an island just south of Cape Cod — and his place of employment. Anna Rose figured that if Andy lived on Nantucket, chances were Sabine did, too. And, she figured his co-workers might know her or, at least, know how get in touch with her. She was right. Anna Rose called the company where he’d worked; they passed a message on to Sabine and soon after, Sabine called agreeing to an interview.
Then, Sabine changed her mind. She got cold feet and wanted to cancel the interview. She peppered Anna Rose with questions. Lots of questions. Who are you? Who are you working with? How are you going to represent this story? Who else is going to be in the story? How long is it going to be? Why do you think it’s important? She even asked Anna Rose in essence “Why should I trust you – you’re with the media.”
Anna Rose says she answered all the questions as truthfully and honestly as she could and Sabine finally agreed to be interviewed. They ended up talking on tape for two-and-a-half hours.
Throughout all of this, Anna Rose was very concerned that she would re-traumatize John and Sabine. She thought she might be “destroying lives,” as she puts it. But, in the end, each of her interviews concluded with hugs, and both John and Sabine seemed grateful for their conversations.
I’ve had a lot of students produce stories on traumatic events. Each of them had the same concerns as Anna Rose: will people want to talk to me and if they do, will I be harming them by asking difficult questions. In every single case interviewees were cautious but willing to talk and incredibly thankful after they had. The key seems to be this: the reporter has to respect the interviewee as a fellow human being from initial contact to the handshake (or hug) at the end of the interview. Anna Rose’s story is proof of that.
You can learn more about reporting on trauma at the Dart Center.
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