Media Study: Frances Whiting on writing 'Children of the Flood'

Media Study: Writing 'Children of the Flood'

Frances Whiting
The current torrent of rain drenching south-east Queensland will be particularly confronting for those members of the community for whom the January 2011 floods were more than a trivial inconvenience.

We were reminded of this with Frances Whiting's latest stunning piece of journalism, the sensitive and beautifully crafted 'Children of the Flood' for Qweekend. A senior journalist, much-loved columnist, former school teacher and new-ish Twitterer, Whiting took time out of her frenzied schedule on Friday (a day on which she takes part in 'The Verdict' first thing) to talk to GWAS about how her story evolved and her career in journalism... 

GWAS: For starters, what is 'The Verdict'?
Frances: It's a thing I do weekly for the Saturday Courier-Mail. There are three of us – Denis Atkins, Robert "Crash" Craddock and me, and they ask us about the main issues of the day and we have to give very short answers about what we think. It's quite tricky because it's often something I have no idea about, like cricket. It's a wide range of issues, some serious and some light-hearted.  

How does your work week pan out, with your column for U on Sunday and features on Qweekend? I work three days a week at Qweekend – Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday – and that's devoted to feature writing and researching those features. Both the column and The Verdict I do from home. The Verdict is half an hour every Friday, but so I know what I'm talking about, I have to keep abreast of all the issues going on. 

Today's Verdict was about the University of Queensland's senate, whether they should be accountable for the scandal about the Vice Chancellor; should the flood inquiry be extended, and will buying more time help Anna Bligh in the election; should Geoffrey Rush have been given the Australian of the Year or should it have been the Morcombes; and should Ricky Ponting be included in the Ashes team.

Some of those I know a little bit about, some I know a substantial amount about, and some I know nothing about. So that means keeping abreast; reading the papers and listening to the radio, but I would do that anyway. The column I write whenever the mood strikes me; I might write it of a night or early in the morning. You write when you can and when inspiration strikes. 

Do you draft your columns or is it up to the sub-editors to clean up the copy?
What appears in the paper is pretty much word-for-word what I've written, editing as I go, obviously. The sub-editors are there to correct any spelling and grammar mistakes (I would hope that there wouldn't be any or many) but they don't touch it contextually, because with something as intimate as a column, you can't really have another voice in there, it has to be your authentic voice. 

And features, how do you go about composing them?
Some take longer than others. With Qweekend, because it's hopefully presenting a very robust, well researched, interesting, surprising, thorough feature on a whole raft of subjects and people, they do allow us to put the time in. It could take six weeks from start to finish. It's often a culling process. You might start with an idea, and it's often a big idea covering a big subject. They might say, 'Write an article about the coal seam gas industry and what it means to Queensland'. Well, that's massive, so you cast your net wide and you work out who the key players are you need, and the voices, and then you start your interview process. You might do a whole lot of interviews and then only three or four end up in the finished product. 

Your most recent feature, 'Children of the Flood', is moving and beautifully crafted. How did you negotiate the angle for that and why come at it from the children's perspective? 
We knew the first issue back would be January the 23rd, and what had happened to Queensland was a massive thing for this state. We hadn't coped with disaster on that level for a long time, so we wanted to address it around the anniversary and we also wanted to say to people who had been affected by the flood that they hadn't been forgotten. There was a lot of attention on them initially, and that tends to fade away. But, at the same time, we knew that on the anniversary there would be an awful lot of rehashing and figures and talk of how much money was lost, and businesses, and the cost to the state, and revisiting the people who had been affected. So we thought it was very important to get a fresh voice and tell a story that has been told a million times in such a way that people would listen to and not be jaded and think, 'Oh, another flood story'.

It was actually Matthew Condon, my editor, who came up with the idea of telling it through adult eyes; why don't we look at how the kids who went through it are feeling a year on? We certainly knew that, anecdotally, some kids weren't coping that well, so we thought, 'Let's really focus on them'. So I was assigned that job. They often give me the ones with children because I'm an ex primary school teacher and I have a real affection for, and an affiliation with, kids.

The first thing I did was contact the Department of Education, because in circumstances like this, it's often the schools who are at the frontline, and that certainly was the case. I asked them how they had helped the children in all the Queensland schools, because there were many, and they sent me a raft of information about all the different programs and strategies that had been put in place. 

The main one was the emergency response team [the Mater Statewide Child and Youth Mental Health Service Recovery and Resilience Team headed by Professor Brett McDermott] that I wrote about: they were at the coalface. They weren't people meeting in committees; a month after the floods, they literally got in their cars and went. I felt immediately they were a voice that needed to be in the story.

Then I contacted people who I knew had helped a lot in flood coordination in the areas, just through researching other stories, and there was a fellow called Derek Tingle, who actually won a Pride of Australia medal for his work, and I knew Derek was on the ground during the floods helping people in the Lockyer Valley, so I asked him if he would mind, on my behalf, contacting families that he knew who had really been affected by the floods who had kids. 

I didn't contact the families myself directly, as I felt that would be an imposition. I didn't want to turn up on their doorsteps or ring them, so I used an intermediary, which was Derek. He literally looked at his list of all the families he had helped, and he probably culled that himself, and he asked on my behalf, 'Could I speak to them.' A lot of parents don't necessarily want their kids to be talking to the media, so you really need the parents' permission.

Then, because I am an ex-teacher and I do a bit of work in schools, I have quite a network of schools I deal with. One of them is Goodna State School, and it's a terrific little school, and I knew that a lot of their kids had been affected. So I rang the principal, Margaret Gurney, and asked her the same question; if she felt there was anyone who on my behalf she could ask. From that, I had a working list of families. 

I initially did phone interviews with all of them – there were maybe 25 families, and in the course of the interviews, some would say, 'Actually, I don't really want to do this'. There were a couple who I personally made the choice not to use, because even though they indicated they wanted to be a part of the story, they were obviously still very emotional and upset. So I was then left with pretty much the [four] families you saw in the story.

First off, without a photographer, I went and visited them all and had a chat. Then I went back with a photographer, Dave Kelly, on a road trip. We went to the Lockyer Valley and stayed overnight in Toowoomba, and we spent two days with the families you read about and spent substantial amounts of time with them. I interviewed all the families together, then the parents by themselves, then the children by themselves, unless the parents wanted to be in the room. That was a really great process. They were all wonderful families, and the kids were amazing.

Then I went back to the office and started my transcribing. As I was transcribing, it became crystal clear to me, instantly, because the voices came through so loudly, that rather than me trying to tell their story for them, that the most powerful way to tell their story was for me to shut-up and take a step back and let the kids tell it in their own words. Kids, as you know, don't self-edit; they spoke it, they saw it, and it was beautiful the way they told their stories and very moving. I think that it had far more impact than it would have had if I had tried to hijack their stories. 

You linked together their stories with some requisite facts and figures, and also information about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder...
That was from talking to Professor McDermott and [psychologist] Dr Vanessa Cobham. I think, like all of us, I had a very vague idea about what PTSD was about, and certainly knew it was a real condition people go through, but I certainly didn't have the knowledge to speak about it with any authority. So they told me about it, and I learned a lot. It was interesting because everything they were telling me, all these signs, correlated with what I was seeing in the kids, whether that was hyper-vigilance checking maps, or separation anxiety, not wanting to leave their parents' side. All the kids, to varying degrees, were demonstrating signs of that. I felt it was very important to bring it all together, to give it credibility, to name it. So while I used their voices, it was good to bring in adult voices saying, 'This is what they're feeling, but this is what it is.' 

Giving a voice to the voiceless, and helping us empathise with people, can be part of a journalistic calling. Has that been the case for you?
Not all of my stories do that – some are very straight forward reads about certain situations. But I think that as a journalist, particularly with a magazine like Qweekend, where you do get the time and space to tell a story properly, you're in a privileged position in that you can help others understand a situation far better than in a short news piece. 

What is it that prompted you to leave teaching for journalism?
I didn't ever have a sudden moment of, 'I must write!'. I went straight from school into teaching, because I didn't know what I wanted to do, and I come from a strong teaching family; my father was a teacher and my two sisters are teachers. I really liked it, and I did do it for a few years, but I also travelled. When I stopped travelling, and came home to Brisbane at 27, I just felt that it wasn't what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. That's not to say I thought I would never do it again – and I still occasionally flirt with the idea of returning to it, because I did enjoy it and think it's a magnificent job. 

I thought, 'Now what am I going to do?', and I had no idea. But people kept saying to me, 'Don't you remember how much you used to write in high school?'. I had kind of forgotten that, that I'd enjoyed writing for pleasure, so to cut a very long story short, I went back to university part-time, as a mature-aged student, and I did the Bachelor of Business Journalism at QUT. I did that for six years while I was living on the Coast, driving down 2/3 nights a week to do it. I was working at the creche at the Hyatt and also relief teaching. So it was a period of six years when I had a foot in both camps.

It wasn't so much the journalism I loved, but the writing part of it. I felt that was perhaps where I should be heading. I finished my degree, couldn't get a job, but through a friend of a friend I got a job writing for a very small paper on the Sunshine Coast called The Sunshine Coast Extra, which doesn't exist anymore. There was an editor there, a lovely man called Stephen Lamble, and he was my mentor. I had a coffee with him and told him that I'd been a teacher and was desperate to try journalism. 

He put me on one day a week, as a causal, and I wrote the real estate advertorials and a gardening column, which is hilarious because you couldn't find a person who knows less about gardening than me. I really learnt the ropes from Stephen, because it was just him and me and another journo. I always tell young people I speak to – who might think journalism is quite glamorous and want to leave school and go straight into the Channel Nine news room – to go rural, because it's a marvellous way to learn the ropes of the job and to improve your writing.

I have kept the first couple of papers that I ever wrote for, as you do because you're excited, and I cringe because my writing is appalling, but you learn by doing. I worked for that paper from one day, to two days, to three days, to full time, and I did everything from law reports to police reports to features, picture stories, covering local fairs, you name it. When that paper folded, which was a News Limited owned paper, they gave me a job in the Brisbane office. I joined the Sunday Mail in 1996. Then I worked full-time until I had my children, and now I'm part-time. I naturally became a feature writer, because I'm someone who uses a lot of words. I wasn't a good news writer because you have to be short, sharp and succinct. It was a natural progression for me. 

It's a challenging job, full of diversity. What is it that keeps you in journalism, that thrills you most?
I'm not a young journalist, I'm one of the oldies at work now, and there's always the question of when do you stop writing and maybe move into an editorial position or a management role. I don't want to do that mostly because I want to be with my children, which is why I work part-time, but I've realised, just in the past couple of days, that I still love it. There's something in me that loves telling stories, that loves telling people's stories.

The reason I know that is because I've just been up to Mount Isa for a couple of days – I flew up there, hired a car, drove out and met with miners, went to the pub and talked with people, and I really loved it. I was kind of dreading that trip, being away from my family, but just getting out there, getting really amongst it and meeting people, absolutely reinvigorated me. So, for me, perhaps it's not so much journalism but feature writing and story telling that I love. 

You recently rejoined Twitter after a sabbatical...
I joined Twitter because I was desperate for a column idea; I thought, 'Oh, I'll write what it's like to join Twitter.' And, having joined, I then had to kind of keep it up, but I was terrible at it. I started out with all guns blazing and then it sort of dribbled away. When I rejoined recently, in just the past couple of days, I looked at my last entry and it was from well over a year ago. 

The reason I rejoined is that every now and then, an old dog has got to learn new tricks. As much as I've been dragged kicking and screaming into the world of Twitter and Facebook, I'm also smart enough to understand that it is the way of communicating these days, and it would be silly not to embrace it. So I've decided to go back in again with an open mind. 

Also, I have two young kids and feel I owe it to them to keep up. I don't want to be a mother saying, 'What are you doing that for?'. I want to be able to engage with them. I'm going to try to be better at it this time. The other reason I dropped off Twitter, was I honestly felt that I had nothing to say. I have a weekly column; do people really want or need to hear any more from me? I'm going to try to come up with more interesting things than what I had for dinner. 

Any words for aspiring young writers or journalists?
We all say the same thing; you've totally got to do what you love. If you do what you love, everything will follow. 

Girl With a Satchel