Whenever I read in-depth coverage of disaster stories, I always remember something that the late Peter Jennings of ABC News once told me. For Jennings, disaster stories almost always served as perfect examples of how mainstream journalists fail to "get" the role that religion plays in ordinary life or ordinary people.
Here's a piece of a column that I wrote on that subject at the time of the anchorman's death:
Anyone who has watched television, said Jennings, has seen camera crews descend after disasters. Inevitably, a reporter confronts a survivor and asks: "How did you get through this terrible experience?" As often as not, a survivor replies: "I don't know. I just prayed. Without God's help, I don't think I could have made it."
What follows, explained Jennings, is an awkward silence. "Then reporters ask another question that, even if they don't come right out and say it, goes something like this: 'Now that's very nice. But what REALLY got you through this?' "
For most viewers, he said, that tense pause symbolizes the gap between journalists and, statistically speaking, most Americans.
I thought about that exchange again while reading the USA Today A1 news feature looking back on the famous "Miracle on the Hudson" involving US Airways Flight 1549. The goal of this story was to focus on a deceptively simple question: What would you think about when you are almost certain that you are doing to die in, oh, about two to three minutes?
You will not be surprised -- in an event that many called a "miracle" -- that religion plays a major, yet natural, role in this story. I also thought that this story did a good job of letting people describe their feelings and experiences without trying to label things. The plane is going down and stuff happens and some of that stuff is intensely personal and religious. For example:
Despite the near certainty of what lay ahead, the cabin turned almost as silent as the dead engines. Psychiatrists call this "psychic numbing" -- the mind shuts down against threats it can't handle. ...
Some passengers say they had out-of-body experiences, others talked to God. The flight became an eternity for some, mere seconds for others. Some later thought they'd been airborne for a half-hour.
Lives flashed before eyes, Hollywood-style. Dave Sanderson, a Charlotte computer expert, replayed Little League baseball games, saw his first girlfriend, revisited his college days. Tripp Harris, a banking consultant, went the other direction. He saw scenes from a future lost, playing catch with his 2-year-old son, helping him in school. "How badly I wanted to see him grow up."
Meanwhile, real time was unyielding.
Finally, at the end of a slowing arching dive with no engines, Capt. Chesley Sullenberger used his cockpit microphone for the first time, telling the passengers to brace for impact.
"Brace for impact?" Bill Zuhowski asked himself. "How do you brace for death?"
Laura Zych heard a baby crying. Instead of an irritation, the cries soothed her as "a sign we were alive."
Jim Whitaker saw death but was at peace because of his Roman Catholicism and a worldly belief that worse things can happen. One of his children had died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. That was a worse thing.
Some thought of their life insurance, others of unmade beds and cluttered garages left behind, forgotten goodbye kisses. Lori Lightner burst out: "Oh, crap, we're crashing." Then she quickly prayed, "Forgive me for everything I've done wrong. I don't have time to go through it all because I'm going to die."
All of this seems quite natural, doesn't it? You can hear the voices.
I mean, there are no major surprises here and, to be honest with you, that's my point. Sometimes, all a reporter has to do to "get religion" is to let people talk. That's it. You get the quotes right and you pay attention to the fine details. Religion is a natural part of this event, so all you have to do is make the choice not to edit the faith language out of the story.
I especially liked this smooth, effortless nod by the writers to the way that "near-death experiences" -- a topic of interest to everyone from traditional believers to New Age script writers in Hollywood -- have soaked into this culture, affecting how people think about death and dying.
Inside the cabin, the passengers remained silent for five or 10 seconds after the jet came to a stop. In first-class Denise Lockie, an office-supply executive, remained braced in her seat until her seatmate, Mark Hood, an ex-Marine, nudged her.
"Am I in heaven?" she asked him.
"No, and I'm no angel," Hood, a deeply religious man, replied as he urged her to get moving.
Nearby Barry Leonard started toward the door, then paused and looked back to make sure his body wasn't still in his seat.
Nice touch. Well done.