In teaching, as in reporting, you have to roll with the punches. You never know what may happen next week. So, with twin typhoons in the Philippines, coupled with the huge number of Filipina maids in Hong Kong, I had to detour from my planned course curriculum.
I challenged my students to localize a major international story, profiling one Filipina and her reaction to what had happened to her family: 300 words. (When you’re editing 70 articles, you must be reasonable with length, right?)
I told all 70 students to descend on the parks and public spaces where these Filipinas gather every Sunday (see the Sept. 13 post below), split up, and respectfully ask: “Have any of you been directly affected by the storms?”
I explained that “directly affected” is a more sensitive approach to “Has anyone here lost a home or relative?” For emphasis, I recalled the black humor of the ill-mannered Western reporter in a Rwandan Tutsi refugee camp, asking loudly: “Has anyone here been raped … and speak English?”
It may be urban legend, but students got the point.
I provided a simple, diamond-shaped story structure: a “curtain-raising” intro of our Filipina subject; deep, meaningful quote; transition to the big picture of what happened to the Philippines; then transition back to our subject.
A few more tips, just to get the hang of it: open the story by describing exactly what she was doing when she learned of the destruction, how she reacted, then quote her explaining why she reacted the way she did. I also reiterated the magical – sometimes cliché – transition word: “Meanwhile, …”
And if you’re at a loss for what to ask, imagine yourself in her shoes. You live far from home, far from your children, parents and siblings, and they’re struck by natural disaster. How would you react? Now you know what to ask them.
Among all the skills a reporter should possess, empathy ranks way up there.