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When tragedy strikes, what do journalists owe sources

Max RobinsonColumbia Journalism Review: ” Three weeks ago a devastating flood swept through sleepy Ellicott City, Maryland, shaking up the lives of residents and business owners and pouring them out for the world to see. Trapped in the flood, my instinctive response—as a part-time journalist and full-time millennial scum—was to document the scene. I took video of the waist-deep water magically held at bay by a thin apartment building door, and photographed the cars unlucky enough to be caught in the pull of the world’s largest draining bathtub. I was holed up in a stranger’s empty apartment, looking at the river that used to be my street, when I was contacted by a production associate at “Good Morning America” via Twitter. With the determination of a fixer trying to get me on the last helicopter out of Saigon, he wrote that a woman named Christina would call me on Skype for a video interview. I’d agreed to talk, but as the lights flickered and then died in the apartment, I replied that I needed to conserve my prehistoric iPhone’s battery. The producer reassured me that two minutes is all they would need—a sort of apologetic, conversational sherpa-ing that I’ve done before, to lead a reluctant subject to an interview…In the days that followed the flood, I answered phone calls or Facebook messages from reporters and media-types, asking me to recount what happened and politely requesting that I distill fuzzy memories and unsure feelings down to a handy quote. I tried to answer as many as possible. At a certain point, however, you hit a wall. The background radiation that stays with you after a traumatic event sticks around for hours, days, weeks. It’s a struggle to answer questions like “What were you thinking at that time?” and “How high would you say the water got?”—to say nothing of offering whatever deep thoughts on the economic and political fate of your town…”

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