I stood on the bridge over the Little Missouri River where I played, swam, and let my imagination run wild as a child. I watched families wipe away tears of grief and fear as they gathered up what little of their scattered belonging they could find throughout the campground. A sheriff gave a consoling pat to a woman, holding back tears himself – not wanting her to see him weak. He was supposed to remain strong.
I felt like a voyeur, a violator of this incomprehensible scene unfolding before me that didn’t belong to me. But this was my job – to tell the story of what happened the night before when a flash flood washed away the lives of 20 people while camping. It was my job to inform the public of what goes on in our community. But this was a hard assignment to take. And watching how the national media exploited these families, which very easily could have been my own, made me sick.
While in college I took the responsibilities of journalism very seriously. I was wide-eyed and bushy-tailed as a budding journalist at a time when our country took a major shift.
On a crisp fall morning during my sophomore year in college, I woke up late as usual and ran across campus to my “Media Now” class. As I found my way to my seat, the class was alive with comments about Nostradamus and how airplanes were able to fly into the downtown area of New York City. I furrowed my brow, trying to understand what was going on, and then my professor dismissed us and canceled class.
As I walked back across campus, there was an uneasy still in the air. When I got to my apartment I turned on the T.V. to see images of the chaos that was 9-11.
The United States invaded Iraq a year and a half later. I was still working on my photojournalism degree and very much saw the value in the freedom of the press and the need for quality journalism.
We studied the Pentagon Papers and how important journalism is as the fourth branch of government in the process of checks and balances. Family friends would tease me about being the typical journalist – pushy, demanding, and always looking for a good story. This never bothered me because I saw it as a service provided to the public.
After college, I was fortunate to land a job as a photojournalist at my hometown newspaper. In college, I had wonderful mentors, who drilled into me the importance of good ethics.
I loved my job as a journalist. I loved telling the story and documenting the history of my hometown. There is power in journalism – the power to do good. I wrote stories on the importance of foster care, those who helped people in jail get their lives back on track, and those who fed the homeless on Thanksgiving and Christmas. But my most memorable impact was visiting with a woman named Clara, who became my friend. Clara survived four years in a concentration camp during World War II.
She was sweet and reminded me of my grandmother. As a Jewish German, she commented on my name. Mara is from the Old Testament and Kuhn is German. Unfortunately, my name is the only thing Jewish or German about me, but we formed a bond non-the-less.
Clara kept all of her story locked up inside for many, many years, she told me. It wasn’t until her grandson wanted to interview her for a school project that she began to tell her story. Unfortunately, our friendship was cut short. Clara died six days after my story about her ran in the paper. I was sad to have met her at the dusk of her life, but I was honored she let me tell her story.
But as my years went on at the paper, this kind of journalism began to slip through my fingers. As newspapers began to lose revenue, we found ourselves doing the jobs of several. There wasn’t time for this kind of journalism.
Standing on that bridge over the Little Missouri River watching people as their world fell away, was also not something I was interested in pursuing. As the families moved to await word on whether search and rescue had found their loved ones, they asked that the media give them their privacy. Another photographer and I decided to respect their request, but a photographer from a much larger publication, one with international reach, looked at the two of us and said, “Eh, I’ve got a 400-millimeter lens. I’m going to go post up in the bushes.”
Yes, this was technically legal, and maybe even ethical. And it did give him a leg up on us, but I wasn’t going to do it. I wanted to respect the wishes of those whose children or grandparents had been ripped from them in the night.
Behind every good story is a person – a real live person. And people shouldn’t be exploited for clicks or sales.
As we followed the press convoy into the campground, a car two cars in front of me pulled over and a photographer jumped out. This set off a chain reaction. And soon the entire convoy was stopped on the side of the road. Photographers flew out of vehicles and ascending on a horseman loading up to join the search.
As they circled and photographed the man tightening his saddle straps, I was taken back to my trip to Yellowstone National Park. I felt like I was in a wildlife jam, and someone has spotted a bear. This did not feel like journalism. This felt like death and tragedy was a spectacle.
That evening I sat in my comfy bed and watched other news reports of the incident. I began to see images with great emotion behind them. The governor had come in to tour the area. And as the press covered him they followed him to where the survivors awaited word.
My coworker called me and said, “Man, I wish you had stayed. They (meaning the journalists who had stayed) toured with the governor. And they are sending fantastic stuff over the wire.” Their images were of the governor consoling survivors and those who had lost loved ones. The governor with those who asked not to be photographed. And for a second, I thought I didn’t have what it takes to be a journalist. But then I thought some more and was glad that I decided to stay back and respect the wishes of the survivors, even if it meant I wasn’t that good of a journalist. I knew I wouldn’t win any awards that year for breaking news.
As a journalist, I did see the value in telling the story. Last year I visited the Oklahoma City National Memorial Museum. It memorializes the 168 people who lost their lives when a home-grown terrorist bombed the Murrah federal building. The photograph that would come to symbolize the event is of a firefighter cradling a one-year-old child, who later died.
That exhibit at the museum says everything I feel. Next to the Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph, it tells the story of the moment it was taken. But is tells also how it caused great pain to the firefighter and mother of the child. “It’s publication causes significant pain for them,” it reads. It goes on to say, “The photo symbolized the pain individuals can experience when an event’s public significance infringes on their private lives.”
I didn’t leave journalism right away after covering the flash flood, but that assignment on the Little Missouri River was the tipping point where I began to realize I wasn’t making a positive impact on the community like I was in the beginning. Now I work in PR and marketing for a local non-profit, so that I can give back to my community.
I often visit the campground, which has been closed since the flood occurred 10 years ago. It is still my favorite place in the entire world. As a child, I spent countless nights sleeping along the bank of that river that took the lives of so many. I remember a two-day card game of War with my sister sunbathing on the large smooth river boulders in the summer heat.
As a child, I used to imagine living in the valley more than 100 years ago, before Europeans had inhabited the place. I longed to have called the place my home. But was glad it was set aside as public lands for all to enjoy.
The Little Missouri River shaped my childhood in ways that could not have been done in any other place. And like a river changing courses, covering its flash flood in 2010 redirected my path and made me rethink my career choices.