The Martin Merzer note about hurricane reporting shows how to write in a crisis

Photo: Matthew Spuler via Instagram

Martin Merzer spent over 40 years reporting from places like Jerusalem, Iraq, and Afghanistan — and hurricanes in Miami. As I read the note he shared with reporters preparing to report on hurricanes, I was struck by how relevant it is for anyone writing in a crisis — and these days, it seems we’re always writing in a crisis.

The Merz hurricane note

The Poynter Institute posted the note that Merzer sent out to Miami Herald reporters in advance of storms in 2004 and 2005. It’s full of practical advice like “Bring pencils. They work better in the rain than pens.” and “Don’t take unnecessary chances. Don’t get hurt. Rewrite gets real annoyed when your screams of pain and other ambient noise from the emergency room inhibit transcription of your dictated notes.” Here’s the section with writing advice:

  • At The Miami Herald Newspaper, a storm doesn’t “pack” winds, it doesn’t “churn” through the ocean and residents don’t “brace” for its arrival. We’re better than that. We use crisp verbs that surprise and delight and are accurate.
  • Continuous news, that’s us. Remember that online is pumping nearly 24/7 and a lot of people are watching us. Call in frequently, whenever you have something worthwhile.
  • Use common sense. Be organized. Think not only as a reporter but as a writer: “How crucial will this be to the overall story? How easy am I making it for the anchor?”
  • In every case, take a moment to organize your thoughts before you call in. Highlight the important material. Jot down an outline of what you will be feeding.
  • Think of your feed as a news brief. Begin with a lede or transition, even if it is very rudimentary. That will make it easy for the anchor to cut and paste. “At Hollywood Regional Conglomerate Memorial Medical Health Center Complex and Ale House, emergency room workers performed battlefield type triage on dozens of injured passengers.” Fact, color, quote. Fact, color, quote. Kicker.
  • Don’t forget to paint the scene. What does it sound and smell like? But you don’t need to polish it. We’ll do that for you.
  • Try to go deep. Yeah, we know people are huddled at the elementary school and stripping the Publix of consumables. And later, we’re pretty sure they didn’t enjoy their hurricane experience.
  • So let’s go a little deeper. How many times recently have they been through this? What special hardships are they enduring? What normally would be happening in that room in the school? Exactly what is gone from the Publix — maybe everything from six-packs of 99-cent Publix-brand water to $4.99 quarts of Evian from France?
  • What is that homeowner wearing as she nails the plywood to her window? How much sweat is pouring off her? Is her kid licking an ice cream cone as he watches? Nice, but also tell us the flavor of the ice cream. Use you eyes to harvest what people are writing on plywood shutters, verbatim. Use your ears to describe the gales. Use your nose to describe the ocean spray before and the mess afterward.
  • Detail, detail, detail.
  • Look for the unusual, the unexpected. Snakes in the trees. A husband and wife who clung to each other through the night as the roof and walls blew away. Or a husband and wife who clung to each other — and a tree — after the storm blew their entire house away.
  • What’s the weather like? Y’know? We need to know when it’s deteriorating, how it’s deteriorating, when it’s improving, etc.
  • Bring it in clean. The cleaner it is, the easier it is to drop into the story, the more likely your deadline-fighting rewrite/anchor is to use it. That’s your goal, right? So, once again, scratch it out in your notebook before calling. Don’t waste any time on polish — just organize it. Sign it with your byline.
  • Look for brief separates or sidebars. But don’t forget that the main story needs you too. On the other hand, if you blow us away with a feed, we may decide on our own to make it a separate [article].

How to write when others are panicking

Sooner or later, you’re going to have to write in a crisis. It might be the most powerful hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic, it might be a politician seizing power like a dictator, or it might just be an inventory stock-out at your company — but whatever it is, a bunch of people who read what you write are going to be very worried. And if it’s a crisis and you’re in it, you’re going to be worried, too.

Here’s what to do:

  1. Take a deep breath and wait a moment. If something is about to fall on someone or explode, shout, don’t write. But if the urgency isn’t measured in seconds, you have a moment to think first.
  2. Remember your audience. They are counting on your to explain something very important. They’re going to be upset, but they need facts and clarity.
  3. Put the most important things at the top (just like a newspaper article). People in a crisis are impatient — they need to know what happened quickly.

Ever wonder about those people who seem calm and determined in a crisis? That’s because they have a job to do, and they’re concentrated on the job. That’s what you should do. Concentrate on the job of explaining what’s important.

The main principle is this:

The more dramatic the incident, the more clear, factual, and dispassionate the writing should be.

That means putting aside the exclamation points and the intensifiers like “incredible” or “apocalyptic.” When you’re writing in a crisis, as Merzer explained, you need:

  • A clear title and lede that explain exactly what happened
  • Numbers that show detail and context (how many hurricanes have 135 mile-per-hour winds and what sort of damage do they cause?)
  • Facts and details that illuminate
  • An clear organization that’s easy to follow for readers whose minds are racing
  • Recommendations on what to do next

For example, here’s what the Miami Herald‘s reporters wrote about Irma’s impact on Miami:

Irma hit downtown Miami — and turned its biggest streets into rivers

SEPTEMBER 10, 2017 7:50 PM

Hurricane Irma spilled storm waters into some of South Florida’s most valuable coastal real estate Sunday, flooding portions of Old Town in Key West, Miami’s financial district in Brickell, Miami Beach and Fort Lauderdale’s Las Olas Boulevard.

Brickell Avenue, the main drag through downtown Miami’s most populous neighborhood, became a three-foot high river choked with debris and fallen branches.

The damage across the region will take several days to assess, as flooded roads drain and downed trees and power lines are cleared. But the sight of storm surge cascading through low-lying streets and into buildings suggested a heavy price may be paid, especially in the city of Miami’s prosperous urban core.

The verbs in the lede are “spilled” and “flooding” — vivid but not apoplectic. And I like “a three-foot-high river choked with debris and fallen branches.” It almost makes the passives in the last paragraph forgivable.

Next time things go really wrong and you need to write about it, think of Merzer’s note and do your job. Save the exclamation points for the fun stories.

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