Tim Wilson (New York based correspondent for TVNZ) and Martin van Beynen (senior writer at The Press) have something in common – they’ve both journalists who have written books. They spoke at the On the spot session at The Press Christchurch Writers Festival. For both, their experience of the human response to disasters was central to their book. They took the stage with Philip Matthews, senior writer at The Press, as chair.
Philip asked Tim and Martin about their biggest stories. For Martin, it was the 22 February 2011 earthquake. He was driving to work, and saw an apple fall from a tree. He drove towards town to see what had happened “I didn’t think too much about my family”. He was very conscious of getting images:
I knew just how powerful they would be.
Martin talked about the situation for reporters after the 22 Feb earthquake. They had to make the decision to go into work (for the biggest story of their life) or to deal with the home front.
For Tim, it was Hurricane Katrina. He noted that when communications are down in a disaster and the helicopter view is not available: ‘You don’t know where the big story is’.
In the big New York power blackout, people would just look at their phones in disbelief:
Normal service will be resumed shortly, but normal is over.
Trauma and creativity
Do journalists get traumatised by reporting on disasters? Martin says you couldn’t do the job if you became emotionally involved in every story. People are willing to talk to journalists – but Tim reckons there is a spectrum from reticience to oversharing.
Martin’s book was a responsibility (he spoke to people who had been trapped after the 22 February earthquake):
People had trusted me to tell their story in a very professional and gripping way. I had to do my best with these people.
Does journalism encourage creativity? Martin reckons its a fairly good training ground. Tim wonders a bit, as journalism can encourage cliche and hyperbole:
Journalists never expresses grey emotions, they express primal Greek emotions.
Journalism as a career
Tim talked about his career.
I wanted to be a poet when I was a festering young man.
He was a taxi driver, and entered a Metro competition and as the co-winner.
Journalism school is a rort … you can’t train for curiosity, aggression, callousness, functional alcoholism …
He got into working into TV. The story involved having someone else’s cellphone, and a call from Pam Corkery.
Martin had been a lawyer, amongst other things, but did a journalism course when he was about 30.
The future of journalism
There will always be a market for good journalism.
Martin and Tim talked about the “terrible, transitional phase” we are in – paywalls locking up content and the decline of investigative journalism.
Discussion turned to Martin’s reportage of the David Bain case. He attended the trial and thought:
I saw all the evidence … I think he’s guilty. I think he executed his own family.
His article “seemed to touch a nerve” with the public.
What does journalism need?
As the eminently quotable Mr Tim Wilson says:
Journalism needs mongrels.