Tuesday, July 4, 2023

Rethinking Storytelling To Help People Care

Reading Time: 12m 48s

Thank you so much. I have always been fascinated with stories that try to predict the future, from Star Wars to The Hunger Games. I must admit here, for the first time publicly, that as a teenager, I always imagined myself like Princess Leia, trying to save the world from the dark side. By the time Katniss Everdeen entered my life, those dreams had evolved into something more realistic. My path as a journalist was very clear but still sprinkled with that same desire to try to do something to make the world a better place.

Little by little, I learned that using my voice motivates others to use theirs, leading to positive change. And that is a superpower all of us have. Last year, in a little over two months, I covered three hurricanes, one earthquake and the worst mass shooting at a church in U.S. history.

I travelled to more than two dozen cities, told stories of almost two thousand people who died and thousands more left living in the aftermath. You see when I first started out as a reporter, I thought that finding the truth was my main goal. I was wrong. That's just my job. What matters the most to me now is to make people care.

Not just hear the news and think, "That is so sad. Well, fortunately, it didn't happen to me." I want to make them understand that eventually, something like that can happen to any of us.

Our world is shrinking; it is more and more interconnected by culture, technology, politics. The good and the bad that happen everywhere will affect us at some point.

Last year when I was covering the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey in Texas, I was standing in the middle of a flooded street in Houston thinking about the zoning laws that allowed for areas without drainage, resulting in the loss of lives. Could it have been prevented? Would it happen again in a different city? Who knows? In Mexico, standing in front of a school where 19 children died after a devastating earthquake, zoning laws were also on my mind.

Puerto Ricans desperately asking FEMA to deliver humanitarian aid as fast as people in Texas and Florida received it brought to light a great disparity in the way the U.S. Government treats its people. Do we have first-, second- and maybe even third-class citizens? And gun control was front and center in the Vegas massacre and the church shooting at Sutherland Springs, Texas.

There are 88.8 guns for every 100 people in the United States - the highest per capita rate in the world.

22% of Americans own one or more guns. So is this a second amendment debate or a multimillion-dollar industry defending its turf? I don't dare have the answers to these questions, but I will continue to ask them every time I get a chance.

And I will work very hard for us to remember the faces beyond the headlines. Again, any day, it can be you or me up there. And last year, it happened to me; the story hit home. For six months in my country of origin, Venezuela, hundreds and thousands of people from all walks of life took to the streets to protest the socialist government of Nicolas Maduro, blaming his regime for the economic crisis that was resulted in widespread food and medicine shortages. And that is where I grew up.

It's where my parents and most of my friends still live. And as I was travelling the world covering all these other stories, my people, mi gente, were running for their lives. The government security forces responded violently to the marches. I, of course, requested to go cover the story; I felt I knew more than anyone else why they were willing to die fighting for the most basic and essential human rights.

But I was told it was too dangerous.

Plus, there's no "American connection." For months, I watched other news outlets cover the Venezuela story. Some were really good; others, not so much. But even as the death toll rose to over 100, I knew the value of the story was fading. The news cycle was spinning with the Russia investigation and the tensions with North Korea, the opioid epidemic and other equally important issues.

And after a while, I honestly knew I had to let it go for my own sanity. I especially needed not to think about it this one day. I remember I had a photo shoot, and I didn't want to ruin the mood, so I put my phone on silent. When I finally picked it up hours later, I realized it had been going off for a while.

And this name started popping up all over my messages, a name I hadn't heard in over ten years: Reinaldo Herrera.

He was my high school sweetheart, and I knew that he was happily married and had two beautiful little girls. The rest of the words followed, like a cascade of nightmares: Carolina Herrera's nephew brutally murdered in Venezuela. My first love, a victim of the violence I had failed to cover. He was only 34 years old.

Reinaldo was special.

He was noble, kind - physically he reminded me of Buzz Lightyear from "Toy Story." He was a class act with the sweetest smile. His killers tortured him so much reports say they could barely recognize him when they found him. And after that, I knew I had to go to Venezuela. I needed to be with my parents and my friends and see what they were living through.

My boss at NBC News was, naturally, concerned for my safety. She made me promise not to go near the protests, report on anything or post any information on social media about my trip. It was torture, but I had to comply. And for the first time, I felt like a tourist, not a journalist. I saw my beloved country that looked like a war zone.

Students were dying every day, and I couldn't say a word. And I remembered a quote by Maya Angelou: "There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside of you." I left Venezuela, but Venezuela did not leave me. Whatever happened next, I was going to do my very best to make people care about any given situation I had to report on. I was going to show the same passion I wished to see in the reporters covering Venezuela's crisis, and instead of belonging to the imaginary justice league, I would do justice by my stories.

Life went on - political coverage, this weird sonic attack in Cuba, the solar eclipse, of course, and I kept busy.

Until Hurricane Harvey took me by storm, quite literally. We drove to Houston in the middle of the night. 200,000 flooded homes in this one city alone. People are being rescued from drowning every day.

Shelters for those who lost everything bursting at the seams. There were a ton of news crews in Houston. The world was watching, but they were missing a lot. My producer, Peter Shaw, and I decided to drive south, where smaller cities were going through similar conditions but fewer outlets were reporting. I remember that one day I walked into this little hardware store.

It was the only place that was open, and the owner goes, "Psst. They found something in the water nearby. A body." "What," I said, "A body? It's two weeks after the storm, I thought everybody had officially been accounted for.

Sir, can you help us find it? We have to tell this story." And he draws a map for us, a map that led to the dead body. Peter and I hop in the car, we drive through the dirt roads with nothing more than this one piece of paper until finally we spot the police cars.

They had just taken the body out of the water.

People were still dying, trying to find loved ones, venturing out to get drinking water for their children. But their stories weren't being told. These people were too far, too few, too poor. I gave it my all. And in the end, we never found out who died.

How did they drown? Did they have any family? Did anyone care? The police were reluctant to give out any information. My story was incomplete, but as I worked, Reinaldo was in my thoughts.

I prayed for his soul. I wanted him to know that he was a great gift in my life. "Rey, you are remembered and you are loved. You will not be forgotten." I also prayed for that unknown victim, hoping that someone would be feeling his or her loss as much as I was feeling Reinaldo's.

We weren't even done in Texas when they asked us to head into another massive storm, Hurricane Irma in Florida. This time, we were there beforehand, in place in Miami Beach, as hurricane storm winds almost blew us away.

I remember the sand pounding my face and body to the point where it was hard to move. We were live in the middle of the Today Show on NBC, and then Peter was yelling for me to get back in the car, and so I spot him, a man - no jacket, no shoes, probably homeless, like a leaf drifting in the wind. I talked about him on the air, I had to.

Millions of people watched as he held onto a boarded-up TGI Fridays, holding on to his life. We were about 150 feet away from him, on a parking structure, trying to get down, but with the wind and the debris, it felt like 150 miles. I called the authorities: "Ocean Drive and Fifth. We're trying to get to him, but please come fast." And when I glanced back down, he was gone, disappeared without a trace.

I felt I had failed. Again. Sure, I told the world about him, but had I really done anything to help him? Without ever knowing him, this man left a profound impression on me.

I later looked at the recording of that day, and I felt sick at how detached I looked.

That's not how I felt at all, but some people on social media even said that I probably didn't care because he was homeless. As human beings, we are often confronted with labels: poor, immigrant, gay, mentally ill, homeless. We see labels in others, and that's how others see us.

I have several: immigrant, Latina, short. Maybe not Wonder Woman, but I can find the truth without a magic lasso, and I can still rock shining bracelets.

We have to remind ourselves to see people, not labels. As storytellers, we have to communicate how we feel, we have to make the pain real to the viewers because if we remain emotionless, so will the audience. Long gone is the era of the cold reporter who couldn't express any feelings. I believe that objectivity and compassion go hand in hand. Just one week later, my team was in a different country after a magnitude 7.

1 earthquake shattered Mexico City. Hundreds dead. Children crushed in their own schools. Volunteers and dogs sniffing for life. There was still hope because dozens were trapped underneath the rubble.

We spent entire days on these rescue sites, broadcasting the dread, but also the hope, as I was translating live from Spanish to English. I think it had never been done before for that long, live, on an American network. On day four, I interviewed the father of one of the children who died at Enrique Rebsamen Primary School. His son's nickname was "Paquito," and he was just seven years old. Paquito's dad told me, "You know, my son, he was an amazing kid.

"Un ti Paso," he said. "And now he's gone." Tears rolled down his eyes as the camera kept rolling too.

But at that moment, Paquito's father, in that church on the outskirts of Mexico City, used his voice to make people thousands of miles away connect to a loss that wasn't theirs. We may not have all experienced a massive earthquake, but we all know what loss feels like.

I thanked him after the interview for opening his heart to a stranger on the worst day of his life. And when I left Mexico City, I felt I had finally told a story the way it deserved to be told: humbly, with raw emotion that really needed no translation. In the end, we are human beings using our voice, our superpower, to tell the story of our kind. My team got sent on one final assignment that summer: The beautiful island of Puerto Rico that was, in one word, devastated after Hurricane Maria. I spent weeks talking to Boricuas who not only lost their homes but their entire way of life.

Their biggest complaint: that being American citizens, they weren't being treated as such. Actually, polls show that almost half of Americans don't know Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens. And I have to admit that at that point, I was physically and emotionally exhausted.

I didn't know what else I could do. News of President Trump throwing paper towels and imitating a Puerto Rico accent made headlines, but I knew the story was getting its expiration date, and as much as it was about home, the United States, there was no cultural affinity. One day, I was walking down this line of about 5,000 people desperate for food and ice and water, and I think some of them realized that I was at my wit's end, because when they saw me recording as I walked down, they started circling around me and some started clapping and hugging each other, and they yelled, "Puerto Rico se levanta," "Puerto Rico rises." And that gave me the strength to bring their spirit to TV and social media and here, to TED talks. I want to share that lesson with you today.

Resilience: the human ability to adapt and overcome circumstances, and, may I add, doing it gracefully. When I look back at the last year, I think about all the stories I didn't get to cover: The brutal displacement of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, the terrorist attack In Barcelona, the Middle East reaction to the U.S.

Embassy in Jerusalem. I know I could have done so much more.

But today, I also know that "quality over quantity" is not a cliche; it is the most respectful way to show that we care. I got to spend time, I got to form a bond with the protagonists of my stories. They left an imprint that will never fade. Telling their stories was a privilege I was willing to fight for. Now think about what you are willing to fight for.

And go ahead and do it. All you need to do is care enough to come forward, like the women who are saying, "Me, too," and the Dreamers who refuse to yield, you can change the future, you can write your own story and be a superhero for one person or for millions.

The choice is only yours. Thank you so much.

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