A niece who studies urban planning at the graduate level at Cornell wrote to ask my advice. Cornell was getting ready to take about a dozen master’s-degree students to Puerto Rico to witness the effect of the recent earthquakes on Puerto Rico’s infrastructure. The niece in question wants to specialize in the kind of damage that will be caused by climate change, and while earthquakes don’t qualify, this was a chance to see how inadequacies in built environments affect people’s lives. She really wanted to go.
But she was, not to put too fine a point on it, afraid of traveling into an active earthquake zone on an island with lousy construction. She could picture, all too vividly, being one of those bodies unearthed from the big collapsed concrete slabs of a cheap San Juan hotel. What should she do, she asked?
In general, I try to make decisions on impulses other than fear. I once turned down — entirely based on fear — a good magazine assignment to Colombia to write about the drug war (the topic of my first book) and have wondered ever since if I did the right or wrong thing. Years later, I had a chance to travel to Baghdad, in the unstable moment right after the “kinetic” phase of the 2003 Iraq war (the U.S. invasion of Iraq) and the start of the long grinding insurrection against the Coalition of the Willing, and took the shot. And in so doing I learned a lot about how to report in dangerous conditions that I shared with said niece and would like to share here with you.
Essentially, you want to attack the problem from two directions. You want to minimize the risks as much as you can, and you also want to be sure that the trip is truly worth the risk. You minimize risk by having with you the phone numbers you’ll need in an emergency — whatever authorities can get you out on short notice — and in her case, by drilling an evacuation from the hotel and establishing a meet-up point outside. (people often die re-entering burning or collapsing buildings looking for friends and relatives who are perfectly safe.) The conditions you’ll be facing may be different, but think through how you can minimize risk and perhaps talk to a U.S consulate where you’ll be traveling.
Thing is, you can only do so much to minimize risk. If a subterranean tremor or a roadside bomb has your name on it, things will get ugly. So to make the math work you need to boost the upside of this enterprise
You do that by taking copious notes and plenty of digital photos and then — and this is the important part — process your notes and photos daily. By “process” I mean writing them into your computer every night without fail. And you don’t just move words from your paper notebook into your laptop. You use the notes to write up the day thoroughly, with character sketches of the people you met, fulsome description of sights, sounds, and smells, and reconstructed dialogue. This takes time, and after a long, nerve-wracking day on your feet, processing your notes takes effort. But it is effort that spells the difference between this trip being worth the risk or not. Write up the day completely and you’re likely to find that this is some of the best writing you’ll do on this project and that these paragraphs, tapped out in your mildew-smelling hotel room late into the night, will be able to be moved wholemeal into your article or chapter. You’ll be amazed at how good your writing is after a day of living the story up close. Do not fail to do this daily. Once you get a day behind, it’s hard as hell to catch up. And the memories lose their pungent freshness.
As for taking lots of digital photos, I explain the importance of doing so here. It is an incredibly useful trick, especially if you’re reporting in a place that entails some physical risk. You won’t remember everything — the latin motto on that soldier’s shoulder patch, that weird little icon on the colonel’s desk, the cartoon colors that the destroyed houses had been optpainted prior to becoming newsworthy, etc.
Reporting can be risky, and more than your interests are stake. Think of all the people who love you, from your mother and siblings to new friends. If you are going to put them at risk of losing you, you’d better have a good reason. Minimize risk and make the work you do in the field as valuable as you can. And remember; you don’t have to tell them about the trip until you’re home safely from it.
late breaker: she decided not to go. She decided to do what the authorities would want her to do and stay clear of the affected area and not be an additional burden.