16 August 2009
It can be a strange take on reality being a news reporter. The expectation is that we are a master of all trades, with a memory like an elephant, recalling the facts, names, dates and circumstances of stories we covered months or even years ago. Over time, reporters can train their minds to process the facts much like a computer. New information comes in during the course of the day, the report is aired or published, and then later that night - or at the pub located closest to the newsroom - we simply clear our thoughts and prepare for the next day. It seems the older and more wiser you grow, the more efficient you become at practicing this process.
A senior television reporter once told me the evening news is like a visit to a fast food restaurant. You sit, you consume, you move on. He even coined the phrase McNews. If it sounds like an injustice to the profession or to the subjects or "talent" involved in our reports, then you're taking my point too seriously.
A predominant goal in writing a news story is to connect with our audience. But on the odd occasion, the circumstances of a story can cut through.
The Black Saturday bushfires was one of these moments.
Like millions of other Victorians, I watched the Royal Commission unfold as our only real connection to the events of February 7. But I questioned why we weren't hearing more from the actual people involved in the fires. It's one thing to hear from the head of the CFA in a sterile court-room environment. The real effort, it seemed, was happening more than 100 kilometres away in the hills and valleys outside of Melbourne's CBD.
About a month ago, on a quiet Sunday afternoon, I returned to Kinglake for the first time in five months. In the days after Black Saturday the drive up the mountain from Whittlesea to Kinglake seemed to take forever. Our journey was blocked by falling trees every 50 metres or so. But on this Sunday five months on, the trees had been cleared, the road had been re-marked - yet the experience was even more haunting. I remembered exactly where the burnt out cars had appeared on the road. I recalled my horror and feeling of helplessness. The piles of bricks and twisted metal that appeared so foreign to a city-dwelling-Melburnian. Approaching the centre of the Kinglake shopping strip, it was a positive feeling to see the bakery was full of hungry tourists, the local footy oval was busy again, and that an air of courage and survival had enveloped the town.
We all see movies, we all read books about the best of humanity appearing at the worst moments in history. It's easy to become cynical. But in a way, it felt like this was happening for real in Kinglake.
Six months ago, in the aftermath of Black Saturday, I was part of a media contingent driving to Kinglake on a minibus. We were dropped off at the sports oval and given just 20 minutes on the ground. It can usually take up to 3 or 4 hours to prepare a television news story, and so this was an immense challenge. Adding to this, as a mark of respect for the survivors, we were asked not to approach anyone, to let them come to us if they wanted their story told. This is a foreign concept for a news reporter. But we respected the order, and after 10 minutes of walking the streets of Kinglake, I met a family who had returned to their home to find they had no home to return to. What followed was an interview I don't think I will ever forget. A mum who had lost her home, a boy who had lost his toys, a family who were drawn together through the loss of their memories.
Skip forward five months, and it became obvious while visiting Kinglake again that we should produce a program that would allow us to find those people we met during the fires and to see how they're doing, to hear what they're going through, to see how they have progressed, or in some instances, how far they still have to go. And that was the aim of our special report, six months on from Black Saturday. Because we felt it was important for people around Australia to see how much life had changed for these bushfire survivors. And their story continues.
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