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Student reporter covers West Virginia flood

Jennifer Gardner

On June 23, a devastating flood hit West Virginia. The powerful storms caused 23 deaths and left 44 counties in a state of emergency. Journalism senior Jennifer Gardner, a native of Parkersburg, West Virginia, is a reporting intern at the Charleston Gazette-Mail this summer. 
Gardner has spent the past few weeks covering the tragedy. Although the stories have been emotionally challenging for her, the experience has given Gardner an opportunity to practice her craft through traditional news reporting and new forms of storytelling.
She spoke with communications assistant Kayla Kuntz about her work.

Kayla Kuntz: How did you get involved with the flood coverage?
Jennifer Gardner: Lecturer David Smith messaged me and suggested that we do a 360° video of the flood and pitch it to the Charleston Gazette-Mail. The Gazette-Mail had never done 360° video, and I was nervous about suggesting the idea, but Co-Editor-in-Chief Rob Byers approved it. He thought it was a cool concept.

KK: What was it like going into the flood-ravaged areas?
JG: The flood damage was massive — unlike anything I had ever seen before. I was intrigued by everything that was happening around me and the stories that people were telling me. 
In that moment, I felt like I couldn’t do anything to help them [the flood victims] because there was so much damage. Those people have lost everything — their homes, their family members, their friends. It was an eerie feeling.

KK: What was the most impactful story that you heard from a flood victim?
JG: We interviewed a woman who had been stuck on her roof during the flood for three to four hours. She said the water rose from her ankles to her thighs within a matter of minutes. It was difficult to hold back my emotions, and as a reporter, I didn’t want to react at that moment. After we stopped filming, I let go and cried with her. At the end of the day, it is very hard to see the devastation right in front of you.

KK: What other stories have you done about the flood?
JG: Recently, I worked on a story about the YMCA providing free day camp to flood victims. The story that I did ended up being the cover story. I have been making the front page a lot lately. It keeps happening when I don’t expect it. This week three or four times my mom has called to tell me that I made the front page. I’m sometimes shocked because I don’t know which submission made the front page.

KK: How did your journalism classes prepare you to cover this story?
JG: My classes at the College of Media have taught me that it’s okay to take chances. When I started the experimental journalism class last semester, I had no idea what a 360° video was—I kind of fell in love with it. My basic reporting classes have also been extremely helpful. I learned that I had to get out of my comfort zone, go up to people, and ask questions. The skill of asking questions to get vital information and paying attention to detail is essential to effective storytelling.

KK: What was the response to your 360° video coverage of the flood?
JG: I have had a lot of people tell me that this was the first time they have seen a 360° video. People who haven’t seen it before don’t quite know how to use it. So if they try to view it on their phone, they don’t know to look behind them, turn their phone or move the screen with their finger. Once you show them, they understand how cool this new video technology is. The 360° video of the flood was powerful because people could understand the damage from a different perspective. Viewers can interact with the scenery because they are immersed within it and can explore the flood zones for themselves through their mobile devices.

You can view the video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RdJVR9fB84M. It is best viewed on a mobile device.